The Union Generals Speak

With this book, editor Bill Hyde gives us transcripts of the testimonies US generals gave to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War regarding the battle of Gettysburg. Along the way Hyde provides his own comment to put the testimony in perspective and provides his interpretations of the testimony and the actions of the committee. His basic argument is the mean Radical Republicans wanted to get Major General George G. Meade removed and replaced with his predecessor, Major General Joseph Hooker, and they were willing to manipulate the record to make that happen. His viewpoint is the Radicals looked askance at any Democratic general, unless of course that general was Joe Hooker or Dan Sickles, or any other Democratic general who disagreed with Meade’s actions at Gettysburg. He writes, “The hearings on Meade, then, were not simply exercises in fact gathering. Far from it. For the most part, the committee aimed to justify a decision reached before the hearings even began: that Meade should be replaced by General Joseph ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker. The hearings were not intended to be, nor were they, a fair representation of the battle of Gettysburg; they were instead a device to point up the shortcomings and failures of Meade.” [p. xi]

According to Hyde, “It will help in looking into the actions of the committee if two particular convictions of its principal members are understood. Those beliefs, certainly not unique to the committee’s members, shaped and influenced their attitudes toward the war and the generals they would investigate. The first of these was an almost pathological hatred for Democrats, from either the North or the South. For the radical Republicans of the Thirty-seventh Congress, Democrats were to blame not only for the disasters the North’s armies had suffered, but for the war itself. … Closely related to the radical Republicans’ animosity toward Democrats was their distrust of graduates of West Point.” [p. 4] Of course, their alleged favorite, Joe Hooker, was both a Democrat and a West Point graduate. Hyde doesn’t explain that evident paradox.

The book is an important contribution to the history of the Gettysburg battle. It gives us the testimonies of a number of participants and their evaluations of the battle. We have Meade’s own words explaining his decisions and what he knew and believed at the time he made those decisions. It follows the testimony in the order in which the generals appeared at the committee’s meetings.

The case against Meade had several parts. First was the assertion he was simply along for the ride, merely implementing what Hooker had planned and allowing his corps commanders to make the decisions about fighting. Second was the claim Meade didn’t want to fight and wanted to retreat from Gettysburg all along, using the Pipe Creek Circular as his main plan instead of as a contingency plan. Third was the claim his pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia was lackluster, and fourth was the claim he should have attacked the confederate position at Williamsport.

As Hyde tells us in his commentary, “The Pipe Creek circular was the keystone to Sickles’s charge that Meade had not wanted to fight Lee. Even a cursory reading of the order, however, reveals that it was intended not as a peremptory order to retreat, but as a ‘general plan … for receiving attack if made in strong force upon any portion of our present position.’ Even Sickles’s own excerpt states that the order was to be executed only if the enemy attacked. In no less than eight different places the circular makes clear that the order was only a contingency one, and that ‘development may cause the commanding general to assume the offensive from his present positions.’ None of this was noted by Sickles.” [p. 34]

One of the more obscure witnesses was Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, commander of the Second Division of the Sixth Corps. According to Howe, “Our position mainly did the work for us. The enemy worked at great disadvantage.” [p. 85] In evaluating this testimony Howe very rightly point out, “This is an extraordinary statement. From his position across the Taneytown Road, behind Big Round Top, Howe claimed to be able to determine that the entire Union position was a naturally strong one, that a large portion of the army was not used, and that it was a very ordinary battle.” [p. 85]

George G. Meade testified twice before the committee. In his first appearance, March 5, 1864, he described how he developed the Pipe Creek Circular. “On the morning of the 29th of June the army was put in motion. On the night of the 30th, after the army had made two days’ marches, I had become satisfied, from information which I had received from different sources, that the enemy was apprised of my movement; that he had relinquished his hold on the Susquehanna; that he was concentrating his forces, and that I might expect to come in contact with hi in a very short tie; when and where, I could not at that moment tell. Under those circumstances I instructed my engineers, with such information as we had in our possession, from maps and from such knowledge of the country as we could obtain from individuals, to look about and select some general ground, having a general reference to the existing position of the army, by which, in case the enemy should advance on me across the South mountain, I might be able, by rapid movement of concentration, to occupy this position and be prepared to give him battle upon my own terms. With this view the general line of Pipe-clay creek, I think, was selected; and a preliminary order, notifying the corps commanders that such line might possibly be adopted, and directing them, in the event of my finding it in my power to take such a position, how they might move their corps and what their positions should be along this line. This order was issued, I think, on the night of the 30th of June, possibly on the morning of the 1st of July, certainly before any positive information had reached me that the enemy had crossed the mountain and were in conflict with any portion of my force.” [p. 103]

Further in his testimony, Meade says, “Early in the evening of July 1, I should suppose about 6 or 7 o’clock, I received a report from General Hancock, I think in person, giving me such an account of a position in the neighborhood of Gettysburg, which could be occupied by my army, as caused me at once to determine to fight a battle at that point; having reason to believe, from the account given to me of the operations of July 1, that the enemy were concentrating there. Therefore, without any reference to but entirely ignoring the preliminary order, which was a mere contingent one, and intended only to be executed under certain circumstances which had not occurred, and therefore the order fell to the ground–the army was ordered immediately to concentrate, and that night did concentrate, on the field of Gettysburg, where the battle was eventually fought out.” [p. 105]

Much of the testimony in this book sheds light on the actions and decisions at Gettysburg. We have the participants themselves explaining their views. That makes it a valuable source for the student of the war and especially for the student of the battle of Gettysburg. Hyde’s editorial comments are usually quite valuable, though there are some places where he goes awry, such as his claiming “Had Hood’s attack not been spotted by Warren, the rebels would have swept to the top of Little Round Top, turning the Union flank while making the Cemetery Hill line indefensible.” [p. 163] Had the rebels taken Little Round Top it would not have meant disaster for the US forces. In the first place, Little Round Top was not a good position for attacking the US line. Secondly, the Sixth Corps, the largest in the Army of the Potomac, was available to retake the hill and blunt any attack the rebels would make coming off it. On page 264 he says 1857 was a presidential election year. It was not. Throughout the book he makes assertions about what the Radicals wanted, especially Ben Wade, without evidence of them either saying or writing what he claimed they were thinking. He certainly makes a case for his view, but he doesn’t prove his case, so in my opinion he should label this as speculation, not fact.

Still, the book remains valuable and I can highly recommend it.

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