A Great Opportunity Was Lost For The Union Following The Battle Of Gettysburg
President Abraham Lincoln had been greatly disappointed that General George Gordon Mead had failed to do more than merely hold his own with General Robert E. Lee in the massive showdown on Northern soil at Gettysburg. Indeed, something more than winning a technical victory of deflection, that is to say a spoiling of the enemy’s strategic purpose of winning a battle on Northern in the forlorn hope of inducing European powers to side with the Confederacy.
The president expected that the Army of Northern Virginia should have been once and for all crushed, completely put out of business. After all a defeated Rebel army trapped above the flooding Potomac River should never have been allowed to again escape back into Virginia, free to fight another day. The president was sick with despair.
There were, however, mitigating, circumstances for General Meade’s letting Lee’s band of half starved, stinking scarecrows, which comprised the nevertheless hard-hitting Rebel army based out the Confederate capital at Richmond, to slip away. Meade had only recently taken command of the Army of the Potomac as it shadowed Lee’s forces northward, trying to shield Washington and Baltimore from the enemy and still protect Pennsylvania and other major cities of the North East.
Moreover, Meade had as yet to work the kinks out of his command system or establish — with his key officers and the men of the line — a confidence in his leadership. As time would eventually prove General Meade might not posses the creative boldness of a General Grant as exhibited by his Vicksburg Campaign, but Meade was solid — not prone to making significant blunders.
There was perhaps another, subtler, factor at play following the epic clash of the two huge armies (68,612 for the South, 77,710 for the North) that generated a total of 43,733 casualties between them over three days of fighting. The aftermath of such a brutal mêlée can paralyze the human spirit for continuing the carnage as the senses become overwhelmed and drowned in the horror of it all. Here is a post battle account taken from the book, Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, by Harry W. Pfanz.
“The stench was everywhere that fighting had taken place. It welled up from human excrement, from the bodies of thousands of sweating men encased in wool uniforms on a hot and wet summer’s day, but mostly from the corpses of men and horses. Maj. Philo B. Buckingham of General William’s staff remembered the dead men, ‘some sitting up against trees or rocks stark dead with their eyes wide open staring at you as if they were still alive — others with their heads blown off with shell or round shot [,] others shot through the head with musket bullets. Some struck by a shell in the breast or abdomen and blown almost to pieces, others with their hands up as if to fend of[f] the bullets we fired at them, others laying against a stump or stone with a testament in their hand or a likeness of a friend, as if wounded and had lived for some time. O it was an awful sight. Terrible! Terrible!’”
Perhaps had General Meade had the luxury of pondering his situation many years after the battle he might have realized his golden opportunity. But as I have shown there were multiple factors that clouded his thinking at the time. The following is one option that even if considered was never undertaken.
Though both armies were severely battered by the three days of fighting. General Meade was relatively close to his supply depots. It was only a matter of a few days until his army would be resupplied with food and ammunition and patched up with emergency reinforcements and whatever else was needed to put his divisions somewhat right. Lee on the other hand was in dire straights. He had the cumbersome task of trying to drag his badly distressed army and those wounded that could be transported back to the relative safety of Virginia, which meant somehow getting troops and equipment across a rather substantial river, the Potomac. In fact the reality was that anytime Lee ventured to march his army above that mighty natural barrier that divided the Confederacy from the loyal Union states of the North East, he was skating on thin ice; he would be toying with a trapping situation.
Then, too, with a weak and lengthy supply line Lee’s troop were more often than not forced to live off the land for a large portion of their subsistence, meaning that if they stayed put for any amount of time they would soon deplete the land of their means of survival. And therein lay Meade’s opportunity if he would only act boldly and swiftly.
The Army of the Potomac was composed of seven corps — First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Eleventh and Twelfth Corps — each Union corps being much smaller than each of the three Rebel corps that they were up against at Gettysburg. The First, Eleventh and Twelfth Corps had been first on the scene of action. They were in due course overwhelmed by superior numbers west and north of town and driven pell-mell through the streets, finally rallying on Cemetery and Culp’s hill at the south edge of Gettysburg in late afternoon of day one. These formations had sustained casualties of a third to possibly two thirds of their strength by the time the fighting finally ended on the third day of battle.
The poor Third Corps was decimated on the Union left during the second day of combat as it had unwisely moved forward of where it was supposed to be deployed, while the Fifth and Second Corps were more moderately damaged on the second and third day of fighting. In fact much of the hurt of the Second Corps was experienced on Cemetery Ridge while fending off Pickett’s famous (and many would say foolish) charge over a mile of open ground on day three, the final act of battle drama.
And thus the key to Meade’s lost opportunity centered on the largest (16,000 men) and least damaged Union corps, the Sixth, which had arrived in late afternoon of day two. Simply put Meade needed to get the Sixth Corps and its somewhat scattered parts reformed and quickly sent to the south bank of the Potomac River as a blocking force at whatever point Meade anticipated that Lee most likely would attempt a crossing.
While Lee would be additionally slowed by thousands of often badly wounded men that accompanied the fit personal in retreat, a majority of the healthy of the Union Six Corps had a capacity for rapid movement. Thus the best course of action for Meade would have been for all but the Six Corps to follow in the wake of Lee’s forces at some distance so as not to hurry along the enemy’s progress as the Six Corps marched directly to the nearest usable ford or bridged crossing of the Potomac in Western Maryland.
Meade did just the opposite. He closely pressed the Rebel army with the Sixth Corps while marching the bulk of his army in a looping route toward Hagerstown Maryland that was within an easy march of Lee’s eventual crossing point of the Potomac — the Falling Waters area.
When Lee reached the banks of the Potomac on July 7 the heavy rains, which for days had been impeding the movement of both armies, had as well made the river too deep and swift to traverse. Soon Rebel engineers were hard at work on a pontoon bridge, but the effort was slow and dangerous. To hold off the pressing Yankees until the job was finished, the Rebels selected a line of defense along high ground some eight miles long. In many places the parapet was six feet wide on top with gun emplacements set for perfect crossfire action. This hurriedly erected fortress line was in the final stage of completion just as General Meade brought his army to confront the Rebels.
On July 12 Meade wired General-in-Chief Halleck in Washington of his intention to attack the next day. Unfortunately some of Meade’s generals wanted more time to prepare. The hesitation proved fatal to crushing Lee, as the Rebel commander and his troops managed to cross into Virginia by early morning of the 14th. This after Meade had issue orders for a reconnaissance in force as the last Rebels were passing over the river.
Had Meade initially rushed a substantial force such as the Sixth Corps to be opposite the Army of Northern Virginia on the south bank of the Potomac River, Lee would have been trapped, until forced by starvation to surrender. The result would have meant that Grant’s 1864–65 campaigns of enormous casualties in such battles as The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor and the nine-month siege of Petersburg likely would never have eventuated, but such are the ways of history.
Some might wish to argue that Lee had at least a chance to fight free of Meade’s containment of him north of the river. But fight free to where? The Rebels still needed to cross the river no matter what, with Meade’s army growing stronger by the day as Lee’s forces continued to atrophy; and the Sixth Corps able to slide south of the river matching wherever it was that Lee might hope to cross, while having the bulk of Meade’s army always on his tale. No, with the Sixth Corps or some other substantial body in place south of the Potomac, Lee would have been cooked for sure.
Mr. Ridgway is the Author of the Civil War Classic “Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis”