Question of the Week: 6/28-7/4/21

If you can only pick three decisive moments in the Gettysburg Campaign, what would you choose?

21 Responses to Question of the Week: 6/28-7/4/21

  1. 1.JEB Stuart going around the Army of the Potomac, leaving Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia blind and deaf as they advanced into Pennsylvania.

    2. Buford deciding to confront the Confederate advance out-side of Gettysburg to allow the AoP to occupy the high ground of Cemetery Hill. Buford picked the battlefield based on the terrain.

    3.Greene fortifying Culp’s Hill and defending it against multiple Confederate attacks which allowed the AoP to continue to hold the life-line of the Baltimore Pike.

  2. I agree with the previous offers by nygiiants1952, but there are so many decisive moments. So let me offer three more:

    1. The failure of Longstreet to talk Lee out of the frontal assault by Pickett’s Division on July 3rd;

    2. The bayonet charge of the 20th Maine defending Little Round Top; and

    3.The failure of Rhodes to advance in support of Early’s attack on Cemetery Hill in the twilight evening of July 2nd.

  3. 1. Meade replacing Hooker as commander of the AoP.

    2. The late start of Longstreet’s attack on the second day, otherwise the battle might have ended then.

    3. I’ll second Greene fortifying Culp’s Hill and holding against multiple Confederate attacks.

    1. I concur with Richard Ryman, and add these extensions: the Late- June 1863 replacement of Joseph Hooker by George Meade as Commander, Army of the Potomac provided the Rebels with little time to come to grips with an “unknown quantity” (senior officers and their staffs were continually discussing the comparative strengths and weaknesses of their counterparts on the opposing side, in order to “second-guess” decisions); and the Union holding Culp’s Hill was more important than most folks realize.

  4. 1. Ewell not taking Culp’s Hill as “not practicable” per Lee’s ambiguous order.
    2. Lee refusing to heed Longstreet’s advice to slide around the Union left to threaten Washington and thus move to a better battlefield for the rebels. That is, Lee’s catastrophic decision to fight at Gettysburg on Day 2 and Day 3 at all.
    3. Gouverneur Warren getting those heroic Union troops into position on Little Round Top.

  5. 1. Lee letting Stuart ride around Hooker/Meade.
    2. A.P. Hill allowing Heth to bully his way into Gettysburg, which was not done in the spirit of his orders from Lee.
    3. Howard committing the AoP to a battle line anchored on Cemetery Hill.

  6. 1. JEB Stuart’s ride.
    2. Ewell’s use of “discretionary” orders on the evening of July 1.
    3. Sickles’ advancing the 3rd Corps on July 2.

  7. 1. Buford and Reynolds on the morning of July 1

    2. Hancock and Howard consolidating on Cemetery Hill late July 1

    3. The NY reg’t’s(#?) defense of the flank on lower Culp’s Hill

    1. 1. Willard coming to the rescue and killing Barksdale
      2. Pappy Greene building fortifications
      3. Custer charging Whicker day 3

  8. Following up on comments already made:

    1. Meade taking command
    2. Howard defending Cemetery Hill and it becoming the key to the Union defense
    3. Hill’s lack of coordination on the attacks of July 2nd, particularly Early’s attack on Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 2nd

  9. Three? Seriously? How about 300? In any event, let me add three that are not mentioned much. These are not “moments” as much as they are events in the battle, but they do not seem to be mentioned very often:

    1. The addition of the men of the 2nd Maine to the ranks of the 20th Maine just before the battle, and the courage and commitment of those men on July 2. I do not see how the 20th could have held that position without them;

    2. The stand of Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine regiment as the far left flank of Sickles’ corp in the afternoon of July 2 at Devil’s Den, thereby keeping some Confederate units from joining the assault on Little Round Top; In my opinion, a fight every bit as dramatic and important as that of the 20th Maine, and likely kept the 20th Maine and other regiments on that hill, from being overrun. The obelisk that is the monument of the 4th Maine is clearly seen by anyone looking down from Little Round Top;

    3. Since I seem to be focussing on Maine regiments, the third one could be the rear-guard action of the 16th Maine on July 1, that gave a large part of the Union forces the opportunity to retreat to Cemetery Hill. If I may quote from Bryan Caswell’s online article, At All Costs: The Stand of the 16th Maine at Gettysburg:

    “The next morning, only thirty-eight men and four officers remained from a regiment that had boasted over two hundred effective soldiers just twenty-four hours previously, a casualty rate of nearly eighty-three percent. Yet the 16th Maine had served its purpose: the remainder of Robinson’s brigade had been allowed to withdraw intact to the Union positions east of town, due in no small part to the unquestioning determination of the 16th Maine to truly hold at all costs.

    No, I am not from Maine. Not even close. Hope to visit someday.

    1. An excellent point about the 16th Maine. There was any number of regiments on the Union side whose great sacrifice contributed to the victory. Chamberlain was a bit of a self-promoter and between him, Shaara, Burns, and Maxwell/Turner, the 20th Maine has been misleadingly transformed into some sort of Union-saving force that single-handedly prevented the ANV from entering Washington D.C. It does a disservice to the men of the the 16th, regiments in the Iron Brigade, the 1st Minnesota, etc etc.

      1. I agree with you, although I cannot think Joshua Chamberlain intended to minimize the service and sacrifice of any other unit that took part in the Battle of Gettysburg. What I find interesting are the similarities between the stand of the 4th Maine on July 2 and Chamberlain’s account of what the 20th Maine did that day. Did Chamberlain and Walker ever discuss the battle and the actions of their respective regiments? I have found no evidence of that in a quick search online, but it makes me wonder.

  10. 1: The Clash at Brandy Station – Culpepper, VA on June 9th. The Federals now knew that Lee’s plan to follow up on his Chancellorsville victory was a strike into the North. Further, with a mass of troops that size (and composition, i.e. combined arms with heavy support), you can narrow down their next move based on terrain, supply needs, and strategic targets. Sticking between Lee and Washington D.C., the Army of the Potomac established a long-term defensive posture for the first time because they had to plan to defend multiple Northern vulnerabilities. The shift away from the single minded “on to Richmond” mindset was evident throughout the rest of the Gettysburg Campaign, and this “defense first” approach eventually demonstrated Lee was *not* invincible.

    2: Lee’s infamous “If practical” order on July 1st – Yes, Stonewall Jackson would have likely (A) understood Lee’s ambiguity better and (B) acted more aggressively, but this is one of the most timeless and easily demonstrable lessons in military education: in battle, orders must be direct and concise. You may leave the details up to subordinates, but the commander’s intent (take that high ground now!) cannot be in question.

    3: “Missed Opportunity?” – After Gettysburg, Meade received much criticism for not attacking Lee as the Army of Northern Virginia limped southwards (including from Lincoln, at least initially). Lee’s Army was still a wounded (and very dangerous) animal, with its back to the flooded Potomac. The clashes at Williamsport (aka Hagerstown or Falling Waters) between July 6th and the 16th confirmed Lee’s prowess in the defense and that by no means could he have been destroyed at that point. The Army of the Potomac was also seriously battered, and still had to be prepared to defend Washington. Given what Meade had (or lacked) in both critical supplies and accurate information at this point, the evidence just doesn’t support the conclusion that Lee could have been crushed or forced to surrender in July 1863. Nonetheless, the amount of debate generated by the closing days of the campaign shows that there are still lessons to be learned about consolidation and reorganization after major battles and how to identify and exploit critical weak points in enemy composition while compromised yourself.

    1. Without diving too far into the endless hypothetical about “Stonewall instead of Ewell” on July 1 (which started with the unsupported contemporary opinion of a Jackson acolyte), Jackson’s indisputable and consistent record of mediocre tactical performance undermines any theory that he would have acted differently than Ewell – especially given Lee’s warning against a “general engagement”, the status of Rodes’s division, the withholding of A.P. Hill by Lee, Early’s stated reluctance, the growing strength of the Union position, etc etc etc. Ewell made a sound military decision at the time given all the factors. But the Stonewall legend has overshadowed that.

    2. Mike, I am going to use your comment to digress a bit from the topic and bring up a somewhat related issue. With respect to your first point, I will state that it was Gen. Joseph Hooker who competently directed the Army of the Potomac in June of 1863 in countering the movement of the Confederate forces north to Pennsylvania, and it was Hooker who had already reorganized the Army of the Potomac in many ways to make it a more effective army. Hooker may have had failings as were set out in Lincoln’s letter to him of January, 1863 and the assessment of him in Grant’s memoirs, but he apparently could manoeuvre bodies of troops well. Even Grant made that admission when he wrote that “(Hooker’s) achievement (at Chattanooga) in bringing his command around the point of Lookout Mountain and into the Chattanooga Valley was brilliant.” Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville may have been, at least in part, a result of being injured by a Confederate artillery shell and probably suffering a severe concussion.
      My opinion is that Lincoln was right to replace Hooker with Meade when he did. That too is a key moment in the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, but I suggest it may be time to focus on General Hooker’s strengths and contributions at least as much as on the flaws and failings of which he is accused.
      The Army of the Potomac under the command of Gen. Meade prevailed at Gettysburg. It was Gen. Hooker that essentially enabled it to get there.

  11. ” Jackson’s indisputable and consistent record of mediocre tactical performance…”
    His many tactical successes measured against a couple of tactical failures support the conventional historical view of Jackson being a very good tactician.

    1. First Kernstown, McDowell, Port Republic, the Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Brawner’s Farm, Day 2 of Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg/Hamilton’s Crossing all involved mediocre tactics by Jackson. He prevailed in some of those despite bad tactics because he had overwhelming superiority in numbers. On other occasions, his opponents made even worse unforced errors. We’re not talking about operational maneuver but tactics. The “conventional historical view” is not that he was “a very good tactician”.

      1. It appears to me that you are entrenched in your opinion about this. I will leave the discussion of Jackson’s abilities and historical record as an “agree to disagree” matter until I may have the time and inclination to address it in more detail.

      2. John, you are right on point. Even the elaborate linear formation Jackson choose at Chancellorsville delayed the offensive strike, jumbled his divisions, and deprived him of fully a third of his offensive power.

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