Part four in a series
In part three of this series, we examined the question of how George G. Meade’s operational orders and the logistical challenges forged by the atrocious weather affected the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this part, we will examine the question of whether Meade should have attacked Lee’s positions around Williamsport earlier than the general advance that he ordered for the morning of July 14. When that advance finally occurred, the stout Confederate defenses were empty, with the bulk of Lee’s army having already made it to safety across the Potomac River.
Logistics continued to be a problem. “Our government was putting forth Herculean efforts to crush Lee’s army before the river fell,” quite correctly observed a New York infantryman, “but in great movements there are always some delays.” Nevertheless, by July 11, the Army of the Potomac had taken position opposite the Army of Northern Virginia. The situation was the direct opposite of what had occurred at Gettysburg: this time, Lee had the interior line with a supporting road network and good lines of communication and supply that was anchored on high ground, while the Union army had a longer, more attenuated line opposite it. Lee’s engineers had chosen their position wisely, and his men had had four full days to dig in and construct stout defenses. “The idea of fighting with a left flank sticking in the air & an unfordable river behind us was unpleasing in the extreme until indeed we got our works built,” recounted one of Lee’s men, “& then we were ready and confident.”
The Union position was nowhere near as strong or as appealing as that of the Confederates. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, the commander of the XII Corps, did not like his position one bit, describing it as “utterly untenable.” Slocum could see the construction work going on across the way, and he realized that the Army of Northern Virginia was building a stout position for itself. The Union line extended from Hagerstown (an attack by George A. Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade and the XI Corps on July 12 cleared the last Confederate forces out of Hagerstown that day) to the north all the way to the southern end of the old Antietam battlefield several miles away. The Union line was long and somewhat attenuated, and there was a fairly deep valley of no-man’s land between the Confederate position and the Union position. Although the Army of the Potomac’s position was on high ground, the Confederate position was much stronger and had shorter, interior lines.
The problem was that Meade had no idea what the Confederate position looked like. Nobody knew how long it was, and nobody knew how strong it was. J.E.B. Stuart’s dauntless Confederate cavalry had done a magnificent job of keeping the active and diligent troopers of Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s cavalry divisions from coming anywhere near it by taking the fight to the Union horse soldiers and keeping them tied up by constantly attacking them until the defensive position was ready and Lee ordered Stuart to take up a position on his flank, inviting an attack by Meade. Consequently, nobody in the Army of the Potomac’s high command had any real concept of what to expect. “Now we have Meade where we want him,” declared a Confederate officer. “If he attacks us here we will pay him back for Gettysburg. But the old fox is too cunning. He waits for our attack; but we surely will not make the same blunder twice.”
“Attacking a defensive position is like a climb,” observed Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the commander-in-chief of the French armies during World War I, “in which the details have to be studied and carefully anticipated and the condition of success is timely and precise execution.” Foch’s statement was true when he made it during the Great War, and it was likewise true when applied to George Gordon Meade’s situation at Salisbury Ridge at Williamsport. Foch’s words of wisdom help to explain Meade’s actions on July 12, 1863.
Given the failure of Pleasonton, who had been relieved of his duties as temporary chief of staff and who had returned to his permanent role as commander of the Cavalry Corps, to find and provide detailed and accurate intelligence on the dispositions of the Confederate army, it was, therefore, prudent and wise to find and reconnoiter the Confederate line. Consequently, Meade ordered the Army of the Potomac to probe at Lee’s position, and his men spent the 11th and 12th doing just that, with sharp skirmishing spreading up and down the length of Lee’s nine-mile-long line of battle. He wanted to attack on July 13, but he was concerned about it and wanted the opinions of his commanders before issuing the necessary orders. He held a council of war on the night of July 12, where he polled his officers. His new chief of staff, Humphreys, chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and all of his corps commanders attended the meeting. Gen. James Wadsworth, filling for an ill John Newton, Howard, Pleasonton and Warren all wanted to attack, but Sedgwick, Slocum, Sykes, French and Hays were opposed. Humphreys, Pleasonton and Warren were not given a vote, meaning that five infantry corps commanders were opposed, and only two in favor of attacking on July 13. Even though he was spoiling for a fight, Meade wisely elected to follow the wishes of his commanders. July 13 would be spent further probing the Confederate defenses, and then the army would make an all-out assault all along the lines first thing in the morning on July 14.
Unfortunately for Meade, the water level of the flooded Potomac River had been dropping steadily and was almost fordable. Further, Lee’s quartermaster officers had been busily building a new pontoon bridge across the river at Falling Waters, where Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps would cross (the Confederate pontoon bridge across the river had been destroyed by a Union cavalry task force on July 4, and a new one had to be constructed from materials scavenged from local barns and warehouses). Only Ewell’s corps and the cavalry would cross at Williamsport. By the night of July 13, the level of the river had dropped to the point where the river could be forded at two locations at the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport. The movement began after dark, with Stuart’s men creating a diversion to foster the illusion that the Southern infantry still manned the lines. By the time that the Union attack kicked off early the next morning, only Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Hill’s Third Corps remained north of the Potomac River. When the Union infantry advanced on the morning of July 14, it found the formidable Confederate works empty. The fates had deprived George Gordon Meade of the opportunity to test the mettle of his army on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
“No commander ever gains perfect intelligence,” correctly notes Prof. Christopher Stowe, who is the authority on George Gordon Meade, in pointing out how badly Alfred Pleasonton failed Meade during the pursuit of Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg. “The multitude of messages flying back and forth paints an always-varied, often-contradictory, and almost-immediately dated situation. The key here is what Frederick the Great called coup d’oeil–the ability to anticipate and respond to events on the battlefield (or in the operational area) quickly. Meade was too new to the command and control of a mass army acting on the operational offensive and was mentally and physically exhausted; thus he didn’t entirely trust his judgment during the weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg.”
As Stowe properly points out, Meade’s management of the pursuit was far from perfect. Again, it bears noting that when the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia began on July 7, George Gordon Meade had all of nine days of experience under his belt as an army commander, three of which had been spent locked in mortal combat with a dangerous enemy. Probably as a consequence of his inexperience, he might have been more confident and might not have called the council of war on the night of July 12, and instead might have ordered an all-out attack all along his lines for July 13.
As his staff officer Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman astutely observed of Meade in the fall of 1863, “He doesn’t move unless he knows how many men he has, how many men his enemy has, and what kind of country he had to go through.” As Stowe points out, this trait was “admirable in the main, but in a people’s war, this can have a deleterious effect in one’s job security.” Lyman accurately described who George Meade was—a man who wisely and sensibly made his dispositions and plans based on accurate information. Pleasonton’s egregious failure to provide him with the detailed and accurate intelligence he needed probably caused the inexperienced army commander to be unduly cautious in holding the July 12 council of war instead of pitching in, as his aggressive nature was telling him to do.
We will never know how that cautiousness would have played out. As we will examine in the fifth installment of this series, the defensive position designed and constructed by Robert E. Lee and his engineers was incredibly strong, well-prepared, and amply manned with soldiers whose morale remained high in spite of their defeat at Gettysburg, and the Army of the Potomac may very well have dashed itself against the Scylla and Charybdis of Lee’s army, thereby negating the army’s great victory in Pennsylvania.