Part five in a series
In the previous installment, we examined George Gordon Meade’s decision to defer an all-out assault along the lines at Williamsport for a day, instead of following his own aggressive instincts. Instead, he listened to the opinions of a majority of his subordinates, who cautioned against the attack. Not to be deterred, Meade ordered an all-out assault for July 14. However, when that all-out assault kicked off, the Army of the Potomac discovered that the Confederate army was gone, having retreated across the Potomac River. In this installment we will examine the question of whether that all-out assault might have succeeded had Meade launched it on July 13 instead. Unlike Sen. Benjamin Wade’s declaration in the report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, the success of such an assault was no sure thing.
Initially, and unlike the devastating losses sustained at Chancellorsville, the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia was largely intact after Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, one corps commander was mortally wounded, and a future corps commander was also wounded in the same volley of friendly fire. While there had been losses at the brigade and even divisional levels at Gettysburg, those losses paled in comparison to the losses that devastated Lee’s army two months earlier. Thus, Lee’s army was in good shape to receive an assault if one was launched.
As pointed out in the last installment of this series, Lee’s quartermasters did a superb job of re-supplying the army under difficult circumstances. One of the reasons why Lee decided to withdraw from the field at Gettysburg on the night of July 3 was because he was nearly out of artillery ammunition. Thanks to the constant running of Lemon’s Ferry at Williamsport, by July 13, the Army of Northern Virginia had been fully re-supplied with ammunition and was logistically prepared to receive an assault by the Army of the Potomac.
Confederate morale remained high, even after the devastating defeat at Gettysburg. Lee’s soldiers remained in good spirits and did not believe that their defeat in Pennsylvania was a crippling blow. The rank and file knew and understood that they were in a difficult situation with their backs up against a flooded river and with no route of retreat. They would have to stand and fight where they were. Robert E. Lee did all that he could to encourage his men. On June 11, he issued the following general order to his army: “Once more you are called up to meet the army from which you have won on so many fields a name that will never die,” he proclaimed. “Once more the eyes of your countrymen are turned upon you, and again do wives and sisters, fathers, mothers, and helpless children lean for defense on your strong arm and brave heart. Let every soldier remember that on his courage and fidelity depends all that makes life worth having—the freedom of his country, the honor of his people, and the security of his home.” He concluded with a flourish: “Soldiers! Your old enemy is before you! Win from him honors worthy of your righteous cause—worthy of your comrades dead on so many illustrious fields.” The stakes were indeed that high.
The men of the Army of Northern Virginia were already confident of their success. “As we got things into shape, oh! How we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open & attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg,” declared Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, who was the chief of artillery for Longstreet’s First Corps. “Our troops are drawn up in a line of battle on a splendid range of hills,” declared a supremely confident Virginia artillerist, “and as we have received a large supply of ammunition, I think we will give the enemy a big whipping, notwithstanding the large superiority of their numbers. Everything seems to indicate a large battle in which it is necessary that we should prove victorious, as our rations are running low with but little chance of getting more, until we take them from the enemy.” Make no mistake about it: the Army of Northern Virginia was just as full of fighting spirit as it had ever been, and it was itching for Meade to attack it in such a dominating defensive position.
Most importantly, the defensive position chosen and developed by Lee and his engineers was formidable. It ran along Salisbury Ridge, a prominent north-south ridge, and was anchored on the banks of the Potomac River on either end, meaning that it could not be flanked. While there were some low spots where creeks or marshy ground lay, the Confederate engineering staff built in interlocking fields of fire to ensure that these positions were defensible. The position featured a compact line of battle, with a complete road network with lines of retreat, supply, and communication behind it that allowed resources to be shifted to meet threats. The line bristled with artillery. In short, this strong defensive position made the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg look like a speed bump.
Indeed, the men of the Army of the Potomac remembered the debacle at Fredericksburg seven months earlier, and they had little stomach for a repeat, or to attack such a strong position anchored on commanding high ground. “It was thought not to risk a battle here as we have not over 50,000 efficient troops and the enemy to be equal to that if not more, with advantage of position and troops concentrated,” said a Union signalman. Nevertheless, Meade was confident. Normally reticent around reporters, he was positively giddy on the 13th. “We shall have a great battle tomorrow,” he declared to a reporter. “The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.”
Despite their commander’s confidence, the men in the ranks who would have to make that assault had every reason to be concerned. The Confederate defensive position was formidable. Referring to the long line of earthworks in front of them, Col. Charles Wainwright, the chief of artillery for the I Corps, said, “These were by far the strongest I have seen yet, evidently laid out by engineers and built as if they meant to stand a month’s siege.” The parapets were nearly six feet wide on top, and the engineers had placed their guns perfectly to create converging fields of fire that could sweep the entire front of the position. After inspecting the position, Wainwright concluded, “My own opinion is under the circumstances and with the knowledge General Meade then had he was justified in putting off the attack.”
Meade’s new chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, who had spent thirty years as a topographical engineer and knew a strong position when he saw one, declared, “Wherever seen, the position was naturally strong, and was perfectly entrenched. It presented no vulnerable points, but much of it was concealed from view…its flanks were secure and could not be turned.” He concluded, “A careful survey of the entrenched position of the enemy was made, and showed that an assault upon it would have resulted disastrously to us.” He also observed, “On the other hand, General Burnside was severely criticized for attacking at Fredericksburg, where the entrenchments were not as formidable than those at Williamsport.”
Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, the Army of the Potomac’s highly respected chief of artillery, echoed a similar note. “A careful survey of the enemy’s entrenched line after it was abandoned justified the opinion of the corps commanders against the attack, as it showed that an assault would have been disastrous to us. It proved also that Meade in overriding their opinion did not shrink from a great responsibility, notwithstanding his own recent experience at Gettysburg where all the enemy’s attacks on even partially entrenched lines had failed. If he erred on this occasion it was on the side of temerity.”
Finally, it must be noted that by the time of the American Civil War, it was all but impossible to destroy an enemy army in battle. The armies were too large, and there were too many factors that prevented such a thing. The reality is that there is not a single instance during the entire duration of the Civil War where an enemy army was destroyed on the field of battle. Armies were compelled to surrender, such as at Vicksburg and at Appomattox, but there was not a single instance of an army being left combat ineffective as a consequence of being defeated in battle during the Civil War. Expecting otherwise simply was not reasonable under any circumstances. The suggestions that an army as well led as Lee’s would be destroyed in battle are completely unsupported by the historic record and would not have happened under any circumstances.
The men in the ranks knew and understood this. “To the unbiased mind it is food for thought, if not for argument, when one remembers the fact, that it took one year and nine months afterwards, with all the resources of an immense army, under Grant, and his lieutenants, Sheridan and Meade, to ‘bag’ the same General Lee and his fighting veterans,” observed Sgt. Daniel G. McNamara of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. “Even then, if it had not been for Sheridan’s ceaseless activity, Lee and his army would have escaped and gone to North Carolina and joined Johnston’s forces.”
A Pennsylvanian echoed a similar sentiment. “Certainly 50,000 veteran soldiers are not easily captured when prepared for an attack,” he correctly observed, “as that army was at [Williamsport], especially under such a leader as General Lee, and the line of retreat well secured.” He pointed out that a successful blow “can only be supposition; and that supposition, may be, that Meade’s army would have hurled back to Baltimore or Washington by the recoil of the blow.”
Thus, there were absolutely no guarantees that an assault on July 13 would have accomplished much of anything. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Army of the Potomac could have suffered a catastrophic defeat along the lines of the one that it suffered at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Such a defeat would have negated everything that Meade accomplished by defeating Lee at Gettysburg AND the Confederate army still would have escaped. Senator Wade’s claim that the Army of Northern Virginia would have been destroyed on the banks of the Potomac River simply is unsupported by the evidence.