Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The Confederate Grand Strategy that led to Gettysburg
After the Confederate success at Chancellorsville, Jefferson Davis approached Robert E. Lee about the prospects of shifting some of the Army of Northern Virginia’s strength to the west. This, Davis explained, was needed to help rescue the better part of the western army and the stronghold of Vicksburg from sure doom. Lee disagreed. He was concerned about the wounded but still powerful Army of the Potomac. While the Army of the Potomac was on the ropes, Lee favored an alternative to draining his powerful force. Lee proposed an aggressive counteroffensive into northern territory. This, Lee felt would aid the grand strategy of the Confederacy by drawing Ulysses S. Grant and his formidable force away from the lower Mississippi Valley.
Taking some sort of action would soon gain a higher priority as Grant’s forces surrounded and laid siege to Vicksburg. Now the task was to force Grant to lift the siege, and Jefferson Davis in contrast to Lee, again favored dispatching eastern Confederate troops to the west. The Confederate cabinet though, rallied in Lee’s favor, selling Davis, and the invasion of Pennsylvania became the decided strategy. The invasion they agreed would accomplish several things contributing to the Confederate strategy. Once in the north, they felt that the Federals would need to weaken the western armies to bolster the defending force—Davis’s primary concern, and that any victory achieved in enemy territory would have significant impact on the enemy’s morale and political situation. Coddington sums up the situation well through the quote of a member of Lee’s staff who wrote; “So, if General Lee remained inactive [as he most certainly would have to do if large numbers of his force were sent west], both Vicksburg and Richmond would be imperiled, whereas if he were successful north of the Potomac, both would be saved.”
In addition a Confederate invasion would thwart the Union plans for continued campaigning in already ravished Virginia, because the Union Army would be forced to pursue the invaders. At the same time, the invading army could clear the Shenandoah Valley of the bothersome Federals who were threatening one of the key lifelines of the Confederate Army. Lee also hoped the taking the war to the north would give Virginia a chance to harvest crops, and strengthen its supply capability. At the same time, Lee knew that there were great-untapped resources available to the Confederacy in the enemy’s territory. Finally, if Lee were to win a major victory against the Army of the Potomac in enemy territory, this would strengthen the campaigning of the northern Peace Democrats and it might force Lincoln into negotiating a peace that would result in southern independence.
In preparation for the invasion, Lee made some significant changes to the structure of his army. The army consisted of two corps commanded by Jackson and Longstreet. Now, with Jackson gone—shot by his own men in a tragic accident at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to break his army into three corps. This would create three smaller corps that could be easier to control and to maneuver. The corps commanders were Longstreet, Ewell and A.P. Hill who commanded the new 3rd Corps. This widening of command brought many new officers into the sphere of responsibility. These officers, although handpicked with the help of Jefferson Davis, would handle these new responsibilities with mixed results.
Lee also shook things up in his artillery. In the past, there was a policy of attaching artillery batteries to only certain brigades. This caused problems because most infantry commanders did not use the batteries effectively. Lee took the artillery from each corps and divided it into battalions of four batteries each. He then assigned these new gun battalions to each division, under the orders of the division commander. This put the artillery into a larger strategic picture and allowed the division commanders to employ their firepower to the highest advantage. In addition, there would no longer be a large pool of guns under Lee’s own command. The key to the process now was the chief of artillery of each corps who acting under orders of the corps commander directed the efforts of the five gun battalions in the corps—along with the division commanders.
The cavalry, under General J.E.B. Stuart would also undergo some changes to bolster its strength. This consisted of the addition of General W.E. Jones’s cavalry brigade that was campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley, and two regiments of cavalry that were campaigning in North Carolina. This all resulted in the addition of three brigades and some improvement in equipment. Stuart’s Cavalry was now at about double its former strength.
The Confederates that began the invasion were reorganized, strengthened and confident. They had been victorious in recent battles and considered themselves almost invincible under their beloved commander. All indications were that their beloved commander felt the same way about the invincibility of his army. This, feeling of invincibility bred overconfidence in the Army of Northern Virginia. This overconfidence would be severely tested as the forces converged with the formidable Union force at Gettysburg.
After General Hooker replaced Burnside after Fredericksburg, he immediately made changes to strengthen the Army of the Potomac. His ability to administrate changes to improve the army rivaled the popular McClellan—relieved for his reluctance to damage his well-oiled machine in a real fight. Among other things, Hooker improved the diet and the discipline of his force, making sure that the men where well cared for, and scared to death if they should straggle or desert.
Hooker also made changes in the structure of the army. He immediately did away with the “grand divisions” created by Burnside, and reformed his force into the standard corps structure with seven corps commanders reporting directly to Hooker. Hooker also reorganized the cavalry into one corps instead of several separate divisions. He also shuffled his leaders to place those he considered the most capable into the key positions. The Army of the Potomac, before Chancellorsville, was at its peak condition and strength thanks to Hooker’s abilities as an administrator.
Nevertheless, like McClellan before him, Hooker excelled in preparation, but lacked in implementation. Hooker was simply “out-generaled” at Chancellorsville, where Lee’s numerically inferior force beat Hooker’s superior force soundly. Hooker, according to Coddington simply lost his nerve when he met the stiff resistance of Robert E. Lee’s Confederates (Coddington p. 33). Hooker and his army retreated across the Rappahannock, considering their next move, as Lee met with Davis to do the same.
The loss at Chancellorsville severely damaged Hooker's credibility. Corps commanders and junior officers alike lobbied to remove Hooker from command. At the same time, Hooker’s army was shrinking as the enlistment terms of many of his regiments expired. The strength of the army dropped 20 % in the months after Chancellorsville. All this, and the loss of over 17,000 men at Chancellorsville added to the concerns of the North.
In the lull between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, there where many concerns in the Federal army—most centering on its commander. The force itself had shrunk, but the army was still capable and full of experienced veterans. Unsure of what to do, and what Lee would do, the Army of the Potomac considered the offense—while ultimately adopting the defense. In the end, the Union Army that moved towards Gettysburg was still numerically superior to the Confederate Army.
Clinging to command, one of the smart things that Hooker did during this time was to reorganize his artillery, and put it under the command of the capable General Hunt. The artillery batteries were assigned to the various corps, in their own brigades, under the direction of an artilleryman. These brigades were distributed to give each infantry corps one brigade, and the cavalry corps two brigades. There were also five brigades placed in the reserve. This process centralized the command of the artillery, making it comparable in command effectiveness to the reorganized Confederate artillery discussed earlier. This would be very important in the month ahead.
There was much movement of the armies during June. On June 9, the Union cavalry corps under General Pleasonton launched a surprise attack on J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station Virginia. After an all-day fight in which fortunes changed repeatedly, the Federals retired. Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the war and the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign, was significant. Although Stuart claimed victory, the Union cavalry had surprised his force. This was a humbling blemish on Stuart’s reputation. A Union cavalry force that he should have beaten easily according to Stuart’s legend had fought him almost evenly. This engagement would bolster the confidence of Northern cavalry and was a surprise to people both north and south.
There were some smaller engagements fought as the armies drifted north. These were primarily a result of the Federal search for the Confederate force. These include actions at Winchester Virginia on June 13 and 14, and cavalry action at Aldie Virginia on 17 June. These and other incidents of contact between the armies resembled a game of cat and mouse. The South in particular traveled blindly, since Lee’s main source of intelligence, Stuart’s Cavalry, was off gallivanting behind enemy lines. There is some discussion about whom to blame for this, since Lee’s orders to Stuart were somewhat vague and left open to interpretive initiative. Nevertheless, as Lee traveled north, he was generally unaware that the federal army was close behind.
Although the Federals were tracking the Confederates north, there was still much concern about the Federal leader. Hooker was not the general to beat Lee. This point would become moot as Hooker rendered his resignation in symbolic opposition to some troop assignments dictated by his superiors as the Gettysburg campaign began. The relieved Lincoln accepted the resignation from the surprised Hooker, laying the groundwork for the assignment of General George Meade as the army’s new commander. Meade was not the best general in the army. Meade was not even the best general in the east. Nevertheless, Meade was the best general that was willing to take on the challenge, and he would prove to be capable of handling it. Meade took over the Army of the Potomac on 28 June, just three days before the confrontation.
Reports about enemy movements increased on both sides, with the north having a slight advantage due to Stuart’s continued absence. Meade ordered his army towards Gettysburg based on received intelligence. The armies regardless of the amount of intelligence they received seemed to be on a collision course, although no one knew definitively that Gettysburg would be the location for the great battle. Though not planned, the ultimate meeting of two small forces early on the morning of July 1 would prove to be the spark that quickly grew into a great fire.