Gettysburg: The Controversies, Part I

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2007

In July, I wrote about the Gettysburg Campaign, observing that “[the resulting clash] remains the greatest battle ever to occur on the North American continent.” It is also the most studied battle in American military history. Every year, new books arise to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding the campaign and the battle itself. It should not be surprising then that controversy has attended the battle almost from the moment it ended, if not before.

Most of the controversies have been on the Confederate side. They include the decision to invade Pennsylvania in the first place; the performance of Longstreet during the battle; Lee vs. Longstreet on the question of defense; the effect of losing Jackson at Chancellorsville; and Lee’s decision to attack the Union center on Cemetery Ridge on the second and third days of the battle. But the Union had its own share of controversies, including the charge leveled by Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles that Meade was forced by his corps commanders to stand and fight rather than retreat after the second day; and Meade’s failure to pursue Lee after the battle.

The Decision to Invade Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1863, there were three major strategic options available to the Confederacy. It could have shifted resources from Virginia to Mississippi in order to relieve Vicksburg. It could have reinforced Bragg in central Tennessee, enabling him to maneuver the Union Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans out of its position by reprising his 1862 invasion of Kentucky. And it could have employed its scarce resources in pursuit of a major victory on Northern soil. It was, of course, the last that was adopted.

Lee’s critics, then and now, have accused him of a myopic focus on Virginia to the exclusion of a Confederacy-wide grand strategy. During the war, a group of soldiers and politicians coalesced into a “Western-concentration Bloc.” It included such Western-oriented generals as P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, Braxton Bragg, and Leonidas Polk; and such politicians as Sen. Louis Wigfall of Texas, Sen. Isham Harris of Tennessee, Gov. Gustavus Henry of Tennessee, and Vice-President Alexander Stephens. As the name of the group implies, these individuals wished to see more effort given to regaining Tennessee and the Mississippi River.

The group’s critique of the government’s policy of launching an offensive into Pennsylvania while only defending Vicksburg and positions around Chattanooga was captured in a letter from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to Gen. Joseph Johnston in which he asked: “of what earthly use is this ’raid’ of Lee’s army into Maryland, in violation of all the principles of war? Is it going to end the struggle, take Washington, or save the Mississippi Valley?” Beauregard’s plan called for a concentration against Union general William Rosecrans in central Tennessee, and then a diagonal move against Grant’s lines of communications in the hopes of getting him to abandon the investment of Vicksburg.

These days, an increasing number of historians have argued that the West, not Virginia, was the decisive theater of the war. It was in the West, after all, where Union armies took advantage of geography and Yankee naval power to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland early in the war by employing the Tennessee River as the “main line of operations.” By the end of 1862, the Union controlled most of the Mississippi River except the stretch between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. These fell in the summer of 1863. Union armies in the West then penetrated the Appalachian barrier at Chattanooga, opening the way to Atlanta, the fall of which ultimately doomed the Confederacy. They inflicted defeat after defeat on the main Confederate army in the West, the Army of Tennessee and captured vast tracts of territory that were essential to the survival of the Confederacy.

According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy, and for parochial reasons, focused narrowly on defending his home state of Virginia. Thus, many recent historians validate Beauregard’s idea that Lee should have conducted an economy-of-forces strategy while shifting forces west.

But the fact is that after Chancellorsville, it was probably too late to affect the outcome at Vicksburg, because the siege was already underway. The likelihood that a concentration could be effected against Rosecrans, that this concentrated force would then defeat Rosecrans, and that Grant would then be forced to abandon his Vicksburg campaign was farfetched. In addition, it didn’t make sense to detach forces from the Confederacy’s only successful field army under its only successful general and send them to Bragg, who did not exactly possess a sterling record of success.

In my own judgment, while the key to victory for the Union lay in the West, the Confederacy’s best chance for success lay in Virginia, where it had its best general and its best army. In the end, Lee effectively argued that the best use of limited Confederate resources was to invade Pennsylvania, and President Jefferson Davis concurred. The latter, like Lee understood that the Confederacy’s best hope for winning independence was to achieve a Napoleonic victory of annihilation.

As he had in September of 1862, Lee sought to change the character of the war by employing the strategic turning movement and open-field maneuvering by infantry and cavalry to neutralize the Union’s advantage in engineering, artillery, and gunboats. For Lee, maneuver was not an end in itself but only the means to attack the enemy and inflict heavy losses. Only in this manner, Lee believed, could the South convince the population of the North that a costly and interminable struggle lay ahead if the Confederacy were not granted its independence. This perspective makes sense of what otherwise appear to be ill-conceived offensives into Maryland in September of 1862 and Pennsylvania in June and July of 1863.

Of course, after Gettysburg, Lee did detach Longstreet to Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, where he made a major contribution to the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in September of 1863. But this success was rendered strategically sterile by Bragg’s loss of Chattanooga two months later.


As I argued in an earlier piece,

Had Longstreet died [from the serious wounds he suffered during the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864], he would have been enshrined along with Lee and Jackson in the pantheon of great Confederate generals. Instead he had the misfortune to survive his wounds and, after the war, commit three sins that were unpardonable in the eyes of Southerners: he became a Republican, he renewed his friendship with Grant, who was elected president in 1868, and—most unforgivably—he dared to criticize Lee.

As a result of his post-war apostasy, Jubal Early and the Virginia-dominated Southern Historical Society unjustly made Longstreet, whom Lee called his “War Horse,” the scapegoat for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg and accused him of all manner of failure as a general. Unfortunately, Longstreet’s responses to his critics were often indiscreet and intemperate, which engendered further attacks on his character and generalship.

The Southern Historical Society version of Gettysburg has a sullen Longstreet, who disagreed with Lee’s decision to attack the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge, dragging his feet, thereby causing the defeat at Gettysburg. Longstreet added fuel to the fire by claiming that he and Lee had previously agreed that while the Army of Northern Virginia would pursue a strategic offensive in Pennsylvania, it would remain on the tactical defensive, i.e. maneuver in such a way as to force the Army of the Potomac to attack the Confederates in a strong defensive position. Critics pointed to this claim as the reason for Longstreet’s alleged foot-dragging.

After the war, Early peddled the claim that Lee had ordered a “dawn attack” on the second day of the battle, but that Longstreet’s resistance had delayed it until late in the day. Early’s claim was debunked by both his contemporaries and later historians, but the slander has persisted nonetheless.

The fact is that Lee’s aide conducted an early-morning reconnaissance, which revealed that the Union line extended about halfway down Cemetery Ridge, short of the high ground of Little Round Top. Based on this reconnaissance, Lee issued Longstreet an order around noon of July 2, directing him to take his two present divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws and attack the Union left.

Lee’s plan called for Ewell’s corps to demonstrate against the Union right on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, while Longstreet, supported by a division of Hill’s corps on his left, delivered a flank attack on the Union line. However, Lee was informed that the Union line on Cemetery Ridge had been extended south, so he modified his original plan and directed Longstreet to attack en echelon from south to north. As Longstreet commenced his movement to the line of departure, he was made aware of the fact that his line of march was visible to a Union signal station on the Yankee left. To avoid detection, he countermarched and then followed a concealed approach to the attack position. This delayed the attack until 4:00 PM.

As I argued in “Lee’s Invasion of Pennsylvania,” Longstreet’s attack nearly broke the Union position. His two divisions attacked vigorously, shattering two Union corps in the process and nearly penetrating the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge.

The fighting was brutal, but McLaws’ attack eventually unhinged the Union salient by sweeping the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield. Meade and Hancock tried to stem the Confederate tide by feeding troops into the gap created by the destruction of Sickles’ corps, but they created weaknesses elsewhere in the Union line. The echelon attack was on the cusp of success when it broke down, just as Maj. Gen. William Pender’s division from Hill’s corps was to take it up. For some reason, his rightmost brigade refused the order to advance. Despite what Longstreet called “the best three hours’ fighting done by any troops on any battlefield,” the attack ground to a halt.

If anyone was responsible for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, it was A.P. Hill, who was largely AWOL from the action after the first day, and Jubal Early’s corps commander, Ewell, whose desultory demonstrations on the second and third days of the battle achieved very little. Longstreet may have disagreed with Lee’s plan, but there is certainly no credible evidence to support the claim that he executed it with anything but alacrity.

“Stonewall” Jackson

The dismal performance of Ewell and Hill raises the question: would things have been different for the Confederacy at Gettysburg had “Stonewall” Jackson not been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville a month and a half earlier? On the surface, it seems that Jackson’s presence would have made a difference. One cannot imagine Jackson deciding not to continue the attack on July 1, as Ewell did.

Remember that during the first day of battle, Lee had shattered two Union corps, the I and XI, inflicting 9,000 casualties, including 3,000 captured. Although the Union position on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills was strong, the soldiers of the shattered corps were demoralized. Had Ewell proven as aggressive as Jackson, it is likely that the Confederates would have carried the Federal position on the evening of July 1. Lee would thereby have achieved his vision of defeating the Union army piecemeal before it could concentrate on the field of battle, driving one corps back on another and creating panic. Nor can one imagine Jackson permitting the echelon attack to break down on July 2 as Hill did.

But there is a second question: which Jackson would it have been: the aggressive Jackson of the Valley, Second Manassas, and Chancellorsville; or the lethargic Jackson of the Seven Days Battles on the Virginia Peninsula in June of 1862? As the latter example proves, Jackson was not super-human. During the Seven Days, he succumbed to physical exhaustion, which affected his performance. This was likely the case with Hill at Gettysburg. This extremely aggressive leader was ill during the battle and accordingly did not push his troops the way Lee expected. As the example of the Seven Days indicates, a sick or exhausted Jackson would not have performed any better than Ewell or Hill.

Lee and Longstreet: Offense or Defense

As I have argued in several earlier pieces, Lee was certainly the most Napoleonic general of the Civil War. He believed that Southern independence could be gained only by means of a battle of annihilation, preferably on Northern soil. His critics, then and now, have argued that his preference for the tactical offensive was too costly for the South. For instance, Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan contend that Lee hurt the Southern cause because of a single-minded offensive orientation that led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford.

Such writers argue that Lee’s predilection for the offensive not only hastened the defeat of the South but also was a major contributing cause of that defeat. In the words of Connelly, the Confederacy would “have fared better had it not possessed” a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee. Even Gary Gallagher, one of Lee’s most thoughtful defenders, has questioned his decision to continue the attack on July 2 (and of course July 3 as well).

According to Gallagher, there were three possible courses of action available to Lee that did not call for his attacking the Army of the Potomac on July 2 and 3. First, he could have remained on the defensive on July 2, inviting an attack by Meade. Although not as strong as the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge would have been a tough nut to crack.

Second, by shattering two Union corps on July 1, he could have claimed victory and then displaced west toward South Mountain, where he could have defended the eastern face of the mountain indefinitely while foraging in the Cumberland Valley to the west. Echoing the argument of E. Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s chief of artillery and perhaps the most astute contemporary observer of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, Gallagher writes:

Had Lee fallen back to South Mountain “with all the prestige of victory,” thought Alexander, “popular sentiment would have forced Meade to take the [offensive].” The likely result of a northern assault would have been a bloody repulse followed by some type of Confederate counterattack. Readily at hand was the example of Second Manassas, where Jackson had fixed the Federals with assaults on August 26, 1862, gone on the defensive the next day, and set the stage for Longstreet’s smashing counterattack on August 30.

Third, he could have followed Longstreet’s recommendation to swing the Army of Northern Virginia around the Union left. In a letter to his uncle, Augustus Baldwin, written three weeks after Gettysburg, Longstreet wrote that “the battle was not made as I would have made it. My idea was to throw ourselves between the enemy and Washington, select a strong position, and for the enemy to attack us.” Such a defensive approach, Longstreet thought, would have permitted Lee to destroy the Federal army, march into Washington, and dictate terms. At the least, the Confederates could have “held Washington and marched over as much of Pennsylvania as we cared to, had we drawn the enemy into an attack upon our carefully chosen position in his rear.”

Longstreet later claimed (in three slightly different versions) that as the fighting ended on July 1 he proposed to Lee that the Confederates swing around the Union left to interpose themselves between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, DC, forcing Meade to attack them in a strong defensive position. Longstreet, like many others had been struck by the strength of the defensive demonstrated by the futile Union assaults against Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Longstreet claimed that his proposed maneuver conformed to the alleged agreement between Lee and himself that the Army of Northern Virginia would pursue a strategic offensive in Pennsylvania but remain on the tactical defensive.

But according to Longstreet’s account, Lee replied that “if the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.” Longstreet claimed that while he persisted in his argument, Lee refused “to abandon the idea of attack on the next day. He seemed under a subdued excitement, which occasionally took possession of him when ’the hunt was up’… The sharp battle fought by Hill and Ewell on [July 1] had given him a taste of victory.”

Unfortunately for Longstreet, his prose could be intemperate, especially in response to false and unjust attacks on his generalship. A particularly egregious example his poor rhetorical judgment is found in his memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox, in which he purportedly describes Lee’s state of mind with regard to pressing the attack the next day: “That [Lee] was excited and off his balance was evident on the afternoon of the 1st and he labored under that oppression until enough blood was shed to appease him.” Such language enraged Lee’s many admirers, even those who believed that his actions at Gettysburg left much to be desired and provoked further criticism of Longstreet.

Longstreet’s position vis a vis Lee was popularized by the Michael Shaara novel, Killer Angels, and by the movie Gettysburg, which was based on the novel (the otherwise fine movie is disadvantaged by one of the most egregious casting errors in the history of Hollywood—Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee). Both the book and the movie are excellent, but they are not history.

While Longstreet was far from the villain painted by Early and the Virginians, I believe he was wrong on the issue of maneuvering in Pennsylvania to force Meade to attack the Confederates. There are a number of reasons why Longstreet’s proposal was not practicable.

First, while Lee knew Northern Virginia like the back of his hand, he was far less familiar with the topography and geography of southern Pennsylvania. In addition, thanks to the absence of Stuart’s cavalry (which did not rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia until late on July 2), Lee did not know the actual location of the Army of the Potomac. As he wrote to Gen. Richard Anderson of Hill’s Corps on July 1, “in the absence of report from [Stuart], I am in ignorance of what we have in front of us here. 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.”

Second, without knowing the disposition of Meade’s entire army, an attempt to shift force around the Union left might well have exposed Lee’s own left flank to the Army of the Potomac. In addition, Lee’s lines of supply and communication that stretched west to South Mountain and into the Cumberland Valley could well have been vulnerable to Union interdiction.

What about the other proposals advanced by Alexander after the war and Gallagher several years ago? The issue of logistics applies to then other options as well. Lee faced a shortage of forage for the army’s animals and of water as well as local supplies dried up. Two stationary armies quickly strip an area bare. Lee could not afford to remain in place for any length of time.

But the main point, well understood by Lee, was that with the Conscription Act of 1862, the Confederacy had made its maximum effort to mobilize manpower. It was unlikely that the Army of Northern Virginia would ever again face the Army of the Potomac on such nearly even terms. In addition, Meade’s entire army was not yet concentrated. Sensing this, Lee outlined his plan to Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble: “I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises before they can concentrate create a panic and virtually destroy the [Army of the Potomac].” This indicates that Lee believed that he had an opportunity that would not come again.

But as I argued in “Lee’s Invasion of Pennsylvania,” the most important reason for attacking on the second day (and the third as well) was that Lee had a great deal of confidence in the offensive power and élan of the Army of Northern Virginia. As Napoleon observed, “in war, moral considerations account for three-quarters, the balance of actual forces only for the other quarter.” And as Henry Heth, the only officer in the army that Lee addressed by his surname, later wrote, “the fact is, General Lee believed the Army of Northern Virginia, as it then existed, could accomplish anything.”

As I noted in an earlier piece, critics then and now have contended that Lee failed to recognize the power of the defense. But in fact, the relationship between the offensive and the defense depends a great deal on the élan and striking power of the attackers. Attackers with élan and high morale can wrest a position from defenders, especially if they are demoralized. This was true of both sides. For instance, the Army of the Cumberland was able to take advantage of a desire to redeem itself after Chickamauga and Confederate mal-deployment to carry Missionary Ridge during the battle of Chattanooga.

But by the summer of 1863, Lee’s army was in a class by itself when it came to the assault. Hooker, who had experienced the offensive prowess of the Army of Northern Virginia as both a corps and army commander, remarked that Lee’s army did not merely attack but struck with “blows.” “The shock,” he observed, “seemed to make the earth tremble on which we stood.” The remarkable offensive striking power of Lee’s army resulted from its outstanding regimental level-leadership and morale, which translated into very high volumes of fire in the attack.

Under the circumstances, Lee believed, not unreasonably, that concerted infantry attacks by fresh troops, led by his ablest corps commander could drive the Army of the Potomac from its position on Cemetery Ridge. Lee had seen his soldiers accomplish such a feat—without artillery support—during the Seven Days when the Confederates cracked a strong Union position at Gaines’ Mill. They had achieved unprecedented success against their adversary at Second Manassas and most recently at Chancellorsville by taking the offensive against unfavorable numerical odds.

As Gary Gallagher has written, we should beware of judging the actions of others from the safe confines of historical perspective. “…it is unfair to look at the grisly results of [July 2 and 3] and argue that [Lee’s] actions were entirely unreasonable. Momentum and morale count heavily in warfare, and it was probably those two factors that motivated Lee to a significant degree. Had Confederate infantry solidified the first day’s victory through successful assaults on July 2, as they almost did, many of Lee’s critics would have been silenced.”

I will address the Gettysburg controversies on the Union side in the next installment of this series. These have to do primarily with Meade’s performance as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac during the campaign. They involve the intersection of the claims of ambitious officers, primarily Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles and Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, who also were partisans of the army’s former commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, and the open war waged by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, the creation of radical congressional Republicans, against West Point graduates and Democrats (often one in the same) in the Union army.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI and editor-designate of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.