July 4, 1863 – 150 years ago – two pivotal events in our nation’s history occurred: the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg to General Ulysses S Grant and Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg.
Countless words and seemingly endless volumes have been written about these two campaigns. I can add little to the descriptions and analysis of the skirmishes and full-blown battles. Instead, I will focus on events and decisions made well in advance of that fateful July which influenced and ultimately may have preordained the outcomes.
The delicate balance in early 1863.
Frustration was pervasive in the North during the early Spring of 1863. The war was effectively at a stalemate. After almost two years of fighting, the vast heartland of the Confederacy was still beyond the reach of the US Government. The South had demonstrated an ability to resist invasion, or at least slow Union advances to a crawl.
The Union Army of the Potomac had been bloodily repulsed in December 1862 at Fredericksburg, VA with losses of over 12,000 men in a single day’s combat. Grant made seven attempts between January and March of 1863 at circumventing the formidable defenses of Vicksburg, MS, hoping to capture or invest the city – all failed.
Spirits improved briefly when General Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac and boldly predicted he would crush Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It appeared that he would succeed when he crossed the Rappahannock River west of Fredericksburg, successfully positioning his forces on Lee’s left flank, threatening to deliver a punishing, if not a fatal, blow. This led to the battle of Chancellorsville.
To make matters worse, prior to Hooker’s movement, Lee had detached General Longstreet, who was a very reliable corp commander, with two divisions on a mission east of Richmond, too far away to provide immediate assistance. Quite simply, Lee was in a precarious position. Retreat towards the defenses of Richmond seemed the logical course of action, assuming that option was even available given the proximity of Hooker.
Lee rarely did the expected. He had a reputation for audacity and aggressiveness. That alone had the effect of keeping his opponents off-balance.
Completely disregarding conventional tactics, he split his available force in two, sending Stonewall Jackson on a risky end run around the Union right flank. Lee was taking a calculated risk, not an outright gamble. General Jeb Stuart, who commanded Lee’s cavalry, had discovered through reconnaissance that Hooker’s right flank was not protected. Lee could smell carelessness as easily as a bloodhound can pick up a scent. It was an engraved invitation for Lee to turn the tables on Hooker.
Since the battle was being fought in the dense wilderness in central Virginia and much of Jackson’s march was obscured by the darkness of night, the maneuver was not detected. What movements were visible were assumed to be an attempt by Lee to retreat south or reposition his line; no need for alarm, or so it seemed, to Union forces.
While Lee directed his wing to give the appearance of readying an attack, Jackson worked his men into position and launched an assault that found the right flank of the Union army exposed and unprepared.
Jackson’s veterans ran over and through the fleeing Union troops and were only halted by a courageous and near suicidal defensive effort when he was within reach of Hooker’s headquarters.
Anxious to capitalize on the day’s success, Jackson personally led a reconnaissance that night. He and his escort were mistaken for Union cavalry by his own troops. They fired upon the band, severely wounding Jackson.
Jeb Stuart took command in his place. The young Stuart, who served under Lee during the capture of John Brown at Harpers Ferry, was successful at driving Hooker back across the river.
Jackson received the best medical treatment the South could offer. It’s worth a bit of a digression from the main topic.
The team of doctors included the medical director of Jackson’s corp, Major Hunter Holmes McGuire. McGuire was among the top surgeons on either side. After the war, he went on to develop important advances in the field of urology and intestinal surgery, and served as president of the American Medical Association.
McGuire performed an amputation of Jackson’s left arm. The general’s condition was improving after the surgery, but he developed pneumonia, a common cause of death among the wounded during the conflict, and passed away on May 10th, eight days after being shot.
Lee and President Jefferson Davis had no time to celebrate the highly improbable victory at Chancellorsville. At around the same time as the battle of Chancellorsville was raging, General Grant had executed a brilliant maneuver which allowed his army to move over difficult ground on the west side of the Mississippi River and rendezvous with Union Navy ships downriver of Vicksburg. The ships ferried his army across to the east bank. He was then able to advance on Vicksburg from the south, an approach not as heavily defended and also cutting across the key supply line to the city.
Grant next won a string of battles in the first half of May that forced the Confederates to fall back within the defenses of Vicksburg where they were bottled up, cut off from resupply. After ground attacks by Grant were repulsed, things settled down into a siege. The clock was ticking and it would be a matter of time before the Confederates would be forced to surrender – unless relief arrived.
The ball was squarely in the South’s court. A strategic decision had to be made. Doing nothing was not an option.
Devising a plan to deal with the relief of Vicksburg as well as the ever-present threat posed by the Army of the Potomac in Virginia was a challenge by itself. The process was made much more difficult due to the Confederacy’s lack of organization in the Western Theater. For that, almost all of the blame rested with Jefferson Davis.
As the President and Commander-in-Chief, Davis had the power and influence to assign responsibility to field commanders, the same power afforded to the President of the United States. True, politics was always part of the equation, but Davis did not have to worry about re-election. Under the Constitution of the CSA, the President was limited to one six-year term – a moot point considering how the war ended, but a very relevant one in early 1863. Davis, then, could exercise broad discretion in the conduct of the war without long-term political consequences.
It actually did not help the South that Davis was a graduate of West Point. His relationships with some of his generals were influenced by friendships dating back to his days as a cadet, over the course of service in the Army, including the Mexican War, as chair of the Military Affairs Committee in the US Senate and as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. What’s more, his military background drove him to micro-manage the war effort. Lincoln, by contrast, had no such issues and did not hesitate to relieve and replace under-performing generals.
Although Davis had appointed General Joseph Johnston as the commander of the Western Theater, which included the commands of General Joseph Pemberton at Vicksburg and General Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga, the latter two still reported directly to Davis. Needless to say, this command arrangement was a major obstacle to a coordinated defense of Vicksburg. In fact, Pemberton had conflicting orders: Davis wanted Vicksburg held, but Johnston wanted Pemberton to abandon the city and save his army since it appeared Grant’s sweep from the south would cause Vicksburg to be cut off from supplies.
Davis’ orders prevailed and Pemberton’s army stayed in Vicksburg.
Johnston lacked the numbers to directly relieve the siege. Furthermore, he was held in check by General Sherman’s force detached from Grant’s main body. Nevertheless, with proper coordination, Johnston may have been able to create enough of an opening to allow supplies to bleed through to the beleaguered garrison.
That’s the situation Lee and Longstreet had to ponder. Each had his own idea about how to deal with it.
General Longstreet had given the situation in the west some serious thought since at least early 1863. He envisioned taking part of his corp to combine with Johnston’s force. Johnston might then have adequate strength to defeat Sherman and break the siege around Vicksburg. Longstreet and Johnston had a good working relationship as a result of their service together in Virginia during the first year of the war. Longstreet rose from commanding a brigade to a corp while under Johnston’s command (Johnston was wounded in June 1862 and Lee took command of what would be called the Army of Northern Virginia).
An alternative would have been for Longstreet and Johnston to move into Tennessee and combine with the forces under the command of Braxton Bragg. They would then attack the Union army under General William Rosecrans. If successful, the heartland of the North would be threatened. Communication and supply flow between the east and the west would be disrupted. It would have also created a political crisis for Lincoln, enough where Grant would have to be pulled back to counter the invasion.
Lee had reservations about the direct relief of Vicksburg in part because he did not believe Pemberton had the capability to coordinate with the Johnston-Longstreet force, plus he thought it would be too little, too late. More importantly, he believed a far-away deployment of his only remaining veteran corp commander along with a measurable segment of his army would expose Richmond to a coordinated attack by both the Army of the Potomac and union forces on the peninsula east of Richmond.
Lee believed the Army of Northern Virginia had to be mobile in order to offset the superior numbers it faced. Getting bogged down in a defensive strategy would result in attrition without any gain. In other words, Lee wanted to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
He also wanted to move the war out of Virginia to provide respite for the farmers in the state and give them a chance to harvest their crops without the threat of armies thrashing through their fields.
An invasion of the North, if it resulted in a major victory, would threaten Washington and other cities in the general region. It could also create a political crisis of its own for Lincoln and possibly win foreign recognition for the South.
Lee had his way. Certainly, his well-earned reputation had something to do with it.
The decision to follow Lee’s plan doomed Vicksburg. Why Davis still insisted that Pemberton remain there and not follow Johnston’s recommendation to evacuate might rank among the worst decisions of the war, up to that time. It would lead to the surrender of 30,000 veteran troops.
Lee’s logic for seizing the initiative and invading Pennsylvania was excellent. As a practical matter, it was flawed. Washington City (as it was called back then) was too well defended and could be reinforced by troops ferried up the Potomac and supported by the powerful Union Navy. A siege would have been impractical. An outright assault would have been suicide.
Although Lee was fully capable of defeating the Army of the Potomac in the open field, it is doubtful he had the strength to deliver a knockout punch against such a strong force.
I doubt, too, that the South would have won foreign recognition even if Lee scored a victory, especially with the fall of Vicksburg, as it reopened the Mississippi River to commerce and cut valuable food shipments from Texas to the Eastern Confederacy.
His only real hope was to create panic and encourage rising sentiment against the war in certain segments of the North (the film, The Gangs of New York, depicts the draft riots in New York, the most violent expression against the war).
It was a long shot under the best of conditions, made more difficult by the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The death of Stonewall Jackson created a leadership void, probably greater than Lee surmised.
Up to Chancellorsville, Lee had the best one-two punch on either side in Jackson and Longstreet. The two were as different in personality as day and night – Longstreet was more down to earth while Jackson could seem detached. His men referred to him as “Old Blue Light” for the intensity of his stare. Longstreet was a friend of General Grant and cousin of his wife Julia Dent. He even served as Grant’s best man at their wedding.
Regardless, they were both accomplished corp commanders who were more capable than Bragg, Johnston or almost any other general in charge of any Confederate army at the time.
Imagine any organization losing half of its top management executives. Naming a suitable replacement can take considerable time. In war, you must act quickly.
Jeb Stuart may have been the logical choice. He did an excellent job of commanding Jackson’s corp in relief, but Lee took an altogether different approach. He changed the structure from two corps to three. Generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill were given the command of the newly formed 2nd and 3rd Corps, each assigned three divisions, one being transferred from Longstreet’s existing 1st Corp.
This left the army almost equally divided among three corp commanders. That may not seem significant, but it was.
The Army of Northern Virginia now had two-thirds of its troops under new leadership. Although Ewell and Hill had proven themselves as excellent division commanders under Jackson, their responsibilities tripled under the new arrangement, with not much time to grow into their new roles. Furthermore, Hill was prone to illness due to a case of gonorrhea he had contracted as a young man, and malaria, which he caught while serving in the Mexican War.
Longstreet, the only proven corp commander, had fewer men under his direction now.
There would be a price to pay for the reorganization at Gettysburg.
So off they went.
Lee eluded Hooker, moved his army into the Shenandoah Valley and headed north to the Potomac. Along the way, Ewell’s new corp swept aside the Union defenders at Winchester, VA, capturing almost 4,000 prisoners along with valuable supplies, horses and artillery. This engagement opened the door for the march into Pennsylvania and destiny.
The battle of Gettysburg was fought over three days, July 1-3; for all practical purposes, it was decided on the first day, ironically it was a day of success for the Confederates.
Neither army had any intention of fighting there. Lee was moving in the direction of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. For that matter, neither Lee nor General George Gordon Meade, who had just relieved Hooker as the commander of the Army of the Potomac, knew where each other’s forces were.
As it happened, one of Hill’s division made contact with Union cavalry outside of Gettysburg. Hill had issued orders not to engage, but a fight erupted anyway. Hill was sick and not with the lead elements when the initial contact was made, so he was unable to prevent it.
Lee, who valued choosing the time and place of a battle, was now facing a totally unplanned engagement. His army was strung out in an arc spreading around Chambersburg, Carlisle and York, with Stuart and half the cavalry far to the east. Before the fighting started, Lee had already ordered his far-flung forces to consolidate at Cashtown, a little west of Gettysburg. He had wanted to regroup and plan now that there was definite news of Union activity. Instead, he had to plunge his scattered corps into the full-fledged battle developing near Gettysburg with little time for coordination.
It was similar to the situation he faced at Antietam in September of 1862. Then, it was due to his orders falling into the hands of Union General McClellan. At Antietam, Lee had to consolidate on short notice and form a defensive strategy on the fly to counter an imminent attack by the much larger Army of the Potomac, but he had Longstreet and Jackson to assist him, not newly minted corp commanders.
Coordination (or shall I say, lack thereof) would rule the day.
Despite the spontaneous eruption of fighting and the scattered disposition of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had no reason to complain with the hand he had been dealt on the first day. He managed to concentrate more men in the vicinity of Gettysburg than Meade. However, Longstreet’s corp was still coming up and could not participate. Longstreet himself arrived around mid-day.
The Confederates pressed hard, taking advantage of their temporary numerical superiority.
The Northerners were resilient and fought stubbornly until they could do no more. They retreated through the town of Gettysburg. In some cases it was a rout, with many prisoners taken by the advancing Southerners. The senior Union commander on the field, General John Reynolds, was killed earlier in the fighting. General Abner Doubleday took over (Doubleday has been credited for inventing baseball, but there is no hard supporting evidence).
Doubleday was not held in esteem by Meade and was relieved the next day.
Lee’s style of leadership afforded his corp commanders a fair amount of discretion, understandable given the state of communications in those days. He could always count on Jackson and Longstreet to use the best judgment when it came to strategic or tactical opportunities. But on this day, he was managing a new team.
He issued orders to Ewell directing him to take the hills south of the town “if practicable.”
The objectives in question were Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. These hills would ultimately anchor the Union right flank and prove vital in Meade’s defensive strategy on the second and third days. Without them, defense would have been virtually impossible.
If Ewell had seized them, Meade would have been forced to retreat from Gettysburg towards Washington. Lee would have won not only a victory, but one which would have deflated morale throughout the North.
Ewell was concerned about the physical condition of his command. They had fought long and hard. He asked Lee to send some of Hill’s men to support an attack, but his request was refused.
It was still up to Ewell whether he should attack. He decided against it.
Many historians believe Jackson would have pushed his men as he had done many times before. Also, under the old two-corp organization, Jackson would have been directing most of the divisions assigned to Hill along with those of Ewell. Under those circumstances, he could have – and would have – used them as he saw fit. A fully supported attack most certainly would have been launched.
It should have been apparent that the defenders of the two hills would have been disorganized after their hasty retreat and the heavy casualties they absorbed. General Reynolds, considered by his peers as one of the best officers in the Army of the Potomac, was dead. It was a risk Jackson or Longstreet would have taken.
It is difficult to place the entire blame for the failure to attack on Ewell. At this critical stage in the battle, Lee had Longstreet available, if not his troops. Longstreet was second-in-command and Lee could have directed him to coordinate an assault by Ewell and Hill on the battered Union remnants.
That night and through the following day, Union reinforcements arrived and strengthened the defenses. The best opportunity for the Confederates to capture the strategic hills was lost.
The events of the next two days amounted to Union forces fending off Confederate assaults, the last attempt being Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd. It should be noted that Longstreet almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on the second day with an inspired attack on the Union left flank. The difference was the equally inspired defence of Little Round Top by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the professor from Bowdoin College who would go on to serve as president of the college and Governor of Maine. He won the Medal of Honor and was promoted to brigadier general in 1864.
In the final analysis, Lee fought the type of battle he tried to avoid. In my view, it boiled down to his failure to manage his new corp commanders.
July 4th was the darkest day for the Confederacy. The decision not to support the defenders of Vicksburg and place all the eggs on an invasion of the North by Lee resulted in a double tragedy.
What if Longstreet’s strategy had been approved?
Well, it was tried in October 1863 and resulted in an important victory for the South. Longstreet and his corp were sent west to bolster General Bragg’s army. The transfer enabled the combined force to defeat General Rosecrans at Chickamauga and send his army into flight. However, Bragg, who had a reputation for caution, failed to purse the Federals. His lack of follow-up allowed Grant time to come to the support of the defeated troops and overcome Bragg at Chattanooga.
The rest is history.