Decisions at Gettysburg

This book by Matt Spruill details nineteen decisions he identifies as crucial to the outcome of the Gettysburg campaign.

The first decision he analyzes is Lee’s decision to begin the campaign and go north. “Essentially, he had four options. He could remain on the defense in Virginia, conduct tactical offensive operations against the Army of the Potomac in Virginia, send part of his army to the West to assist at Vicksburg or at some other point, or take his army into Northern territory. Remaining on the defense in Virginia might result in additional local victories for Lee with a high casualty rate for the Army of the Potomac, but it would surrender the initiative to the Army of the Potomac’s commander. Conducting tactical offensive operations in Virginia would be one step above remaining on the defense. Lee might be able to gain the initiative and force the Union army to respond to his maneuvering in order to protect Washington, but, at the end of the campaign season, other than inflicting casualties on each other, that would have probably been the only gain. Sending part of his army to assist in the West would have had the effect of forcing Lee to assume the defense in Virginia. These options may have resulted in high Union casualties that could have had an effect on the Northern home front and given strength to the rising sentiment that the price for preserving the Union was becoming too expensive. Over time this sentiment might have produced a positive benefit for the Confederacy. Lee realized that remaining on the defense would probably lead to defeat as the Union’s superiority in manpower and manufacturing continued to be mobilized. As all three of these options gave the strategic initiative to the Union army in the East, Lee rejected them. The greatest disadvantage for all three options was that none had the potential to develop an immediate political situation that could lead to a negotiated peace.” [pp. 5-6]

After discussing the political situation and war weariness in the loyal states, Spruill then gets into Lee’s objectives. “Lee expected to accomplish three objectives by taking his army into the North. First, such a move would place him in an area that had bee barely touched by the war. In this fertile area he would not only be able to sustain his army, but he could gather and send supplies back to Virginia for future use. A secondary benefit would be to relieve, temporarily, the Virginia countryside and the inefficient supply system from having to sustain Lee’s army. Second, if the Army of Northern Virginia moved north from the line of the Rappahannock River, then the Union army would be forced to follow. The Army of the Potomac would have to maneuver so as to keep itself between Lee and Washington, D.C., and at the same time attempt to force a battle to destroy Lee’s army or to drive it from Northern soil. Such a move would give Lee the operational initiative and preempt any Union campaign plans in Virginia. Third, Lee was seeking to engage and defeat the Army of the Potomac on Northern territory. The political effects of this would have been far-reaching, as there were groups in the North wondering if the war had not gone on too long and if the price of saving the Union was not becoming too high.” [pp. 6-7]

He next explains a particular strategic concept Lee was using: “The most fundamental of these concepts is that military action at the strategic level has no meaning unless it supports the political objective. The Confederacy’s political objective was to end the war with the Confederacy intact and recognized as a separate country from the United States.” [p. 7] I would add to that with the institution of slavery intact as well. He continues, “For the South to accomplish this, the North would have to be forced to cease fighting and let the seceding states depart from the Union. Three things could make this happen: Lincoln’s losing the election to a peace party candidate, changing the composition of the U.S. Congress, whose members would then demand an end to the war, and a dramatic rise of the peace party that could influence political policy. Any of these changes in combination with the others might bring about the desired results. The only way the Confederacy could help create any of these changes was by a significant victory on the battlefield. A victory of that magnitude would have to be one where a major Union army was soundly defeated on Northern soil. This would preferably be the Army of the Potomac, which among other things was charged with protecting Washington, D.C., and had not yet had a clear victory over the Confederate army in Virginia. It is obvious that Lee understood this concept in 1862, as he wrote about it in his letters to Davis. For operational security he did not write to Jefferson Davis about his campaign plan in 1863. But that does not mean he did not understand and apply this concept to his campaign plan.” [p. 7]

While Lee didn’t write to Davis about his concept in 1863, we still have his thoughts on paper in a letter to his wife, Mary. “In a letter to her on April 19, 1863, he wrote, ‘If successful this  year, next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong s that the next administration will go in on that basis.’ ” [p. 8]

The second critical decision Spruill discusses is Lee’s decision to reorganize the Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of losing Stonewall Jackson. Lee reorganized the army from two corps to three corps, promoting Richard S. Ewell and Ambrose Powell Hill to corps command. “Lee’s reorganization resulted in many of his key commanders being inexperienced in the positions of command they now occupied. There were forty-nine key commanders: three corps commanders, nine division commanders, and thirty-seven brigade commanders. Of these forty-nine commanders, fourteen of them, 29 percent, were new to the positions they now held. Two of these were corps commanders, and three were division commanders. This inexperience factor was critical at the corps command level. Being promoted from division commander to corps commander was a very large increase in responsibility and required the development of additional command and planning skills not needed at the division level. Although not quite so critical, the same also held true for the move from brigade to division command. In addition, the experienced commanders were not spread evenly across the army. In Longstreet’s Corps the commander, the three division commanders, and all eleven brigade commanders, were experienced in the positions they held. In Ewell’s Corps 35 percent of key commanders were inexperienced. They were the corps commander, one of three division commanders, and four of thirteen brigade commanders. Forty-seven percent of key commanders in A. P. Hill’s Corps were inexperienced. They were the corps commander, two of three division commanders, and five of thirteen brigade commanders. Lee also reorganized the artillery. All the artillery batteries, except for the cavalry’s, were redistributed to form fifteen battalions. With some exceptions, each battalion was organized with four batteries of four guns each, for a total of sixteen guns. Each infantry corps was assigned five artillery battalions that were under the tactical control of each corps commander and his corps’ chief of artillery. This provided a corps commander the capability to distribute or mass his artillery as individual situations required. Of the five battalions, each of the three infantry divisions usually had one artillery battalion attached for fire support, while the other two battalions were kept as a corps artillery reserve. However, this organization was flexible enough to keep more artillery in reserve or to attach more than one battalion to a division, if needed. In this reorganization all the battalions of the army artillery reserve were reassigned to the corps artillery and the army artillery reserve ceased to exist. While this arrangement provided more artillery to each corps commander, it left Lee with no army-level artillery he could directly employ to influence a battle. Having no central reserve of artillery or overall tactical artillery command, [William N.] Pendleton confined himself to mostly administrative duties. The cavalry organization was basically left as it had been. However, to Stuart’s normal complement of four cavalry brigades and six batteries of artillery were added two more brigades of cavalry.” [p. 10-12]

The book is filled with solid, cogent military analysis of each of the nineteen decisions. The decisions include the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, Stuart’s ride to the east of the Army of the Potomac, Buford’s decision to fight a delaying action, Reynolds’ decision to reinforce Buford, Ewell’s decision to immediately attack on arriving at Oak Hill, his decision not to attack Cemetery Hill, Meade’s decision to move the entire Army of the Potomac to Gettysburg, Lee’s decision to attack on July 2, Longstreet’s decision to countermarch on seeing the Union signal station on Little Round Top, Sickles’ decision to move into the Peach Orchard, Longstreet’s decision not to approve Hood’s request to move off to the right toward the Baltimore Pike, Law’s decision to attack the Union artillery, Benning’s decision on which axis to attack, the decision to leave George S. Greene’s brigade on Culp’s Hill, the Union decision to attack at first light on Culp’s Hill, Lee’s decision to attack the Union center with the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, and Lee’s decision to retreat after the battle. It’s an excellent analysis that provides the student of the war and the battle insight into the thought behind those decisions and the circumstances that affected each decision.

The book also includes a tour of the battlefield where one can see where each decision was made. Patterned after the U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg, the tour also includes excerpts from after action reports in the Official Records. Other appendices include both the Union and the Confederate orders of battle.

This is a very useful book for those looking to understand the military decisions affecting the Battle of Gettysburg. I can highly recommend it.

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