Streetwise Professor

July 2, 2013

A Marvelous Feat of Arms, Utterly Barren of Results

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 2:25 pm

At approximately this hour, 150 years ago, two divisions of James Longstreet’s First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia launched an assault at Gettysburg that has been called the greatest single afternoon of fighting in history.  And with justice.  In a mere few hours, Longstreet’s two divisions wrecked five Union divisions and a part of a sixth (Caldwell’s division of the Second Corps, Birney’s and Humphrey’s of the Third Corps, Barnes’s division of the Fifth Corps, and the Regular Brigade of Ayres’s division of the Fifth Corps).

But in the end, it was for naught. Longstreet (with an assist from a division of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps) succeeded in smashing back the Union left to the line Cemetery Ridge-Little Round Top it never should have left in the first place, but could go no further.  Like virtually all frontal assaults in the war (with a few exceptions like Missionary Ridge and Nashville and maybe Third Winchester or Cedar Creek), no matter how initially successful, Longstreet’s attack eventually ground to a halt as the result of casualties, friction, exhaustion, and the disorder that inevitably resulted from an assault.  In the Civil War, there was no way to exploit an initial success: infantry could smash infantry, sometimes, but could not exploit a breakthrough.  There were no reserves to build on the hard won gains won by Hood’s and McClaws’s divisions, and Union commander George Meade was able to rush troops from all over the battlefield (including units of the Twelfth Corps from the opposite end of the Union line, at Culp’s Hill) to shore up his flank.  Indeed, at the very end of the struggle on the 2d, a Fifth Corps division (Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserve Division) swept across the Valley of Death (more prosaically, the valley cut by the meandering Plum Run) below Little Round Top and drove the Confederates out of the Wheat Field.  The Confederates finished the day not far from where they had started it.

The action on the Union left on the Second is one of the most complex and interesting actions of the entire war.  Prosaic agricultural features (the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard) and rather exotic geographic ones (Devil’s Den, Little Round Top) became forever etched in the American lexicon and consciousness as a result of what happened during those few short hours.  Formerly pastoral settings became a vast charnel house.  And in this vortex, the Union army won by not losing.  The stolid Longstreet, reputed a defensive genius, had launched one of his four great assaults of the war (Second Manassass, Chickamauga, the Wilderness being the others) but fell short of victory.

Which is probably exactly why he contemplated Lee’s plan for July 3d with such trepidation.  But that’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.  For now, take a minute to think of what transpired at this minute, 150 years ago.  A marvelous feat of arms, which like so many others, proved utterly barren of results except for the bounteous harvest of brave young men.

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  1. I’d say the heroic defence of Inkermanin the Crimean war would have to rank alongside it.

    Comment by Andrew — July 3, 2013 @ 2:33 am

  2. What’s sad is that despite all the drama and heroism in the east, the entire purpose of the Army of the Potomac was essentially to hold Lee and his forces in Virginia so that Grant and Sherman could win the war in the west. Gettysburg holds our imagination, but what was important in early July 1863 was what was happening at Vicksburg, not Gettysburg.

    Comment by Chris — July 3, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

  3. @Chris-I’ve long been a Western War guy. The war in the East was a bloody stalemate, and all the grand maneuvers and decisive battles took place in the Western Theater (which moved to the east of the Appalachians in 1864). Sadly, for a variety of reasons, the war in the East gripped the imaginations of contemporaries as well, and the West was too often overlooked. (The NY-DC media axis was as dominant then as today, or even more so).

    All my ancestors who fought did so in the Western Theater (Ohio regiments). Two were at Shiloh and Vicksburg. Another at Chickamauga. All three were at Chattanooga, and the Atlanta Campaign. One was shot at Dallas, GA on 28 May, 1864, and that was the end of his service. The other two fought in the rest of the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, the Carolinas Campaign, and marched in the Grand Review in DC.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 3, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

  4. Yes, there was a very good book I read recently which said exactly that. The ACW was won in the west, Lee was a great general, but he was never going to have the resources to win unless he took Washington and captured Lincoln.

    Comment by Andrew — July 6, 2013 @ 7:18 am

  5. Though I would disagree that the whole purpose of the army of the Potomac was to hold Lee.
    It tried very hard on several occasions to capture Richmond and advance south, many of which were frustrated almost as much by the politicking of Union generals as the brilliance of Lee.

    Also, to be quite honest, many of the field tactics employed by Union officers were based on French tactical manuals that were outdated in the 1830’s, let alone the 1860’s.

    Comment by Andrew — July 6, 2013 @ 7:20 am

  6. @Andrew. That was certainly not its purpose prior to the spring of 1864. It might have been the Union grand strategy in 1864, but it’s hard to know whether that was a convenient ex post rationalization of what actually transpired.

    And it wasn’t just Union officers. Confederates too. Lee might have been one of the worst offenders on that score, actually.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 6, 2013 @ 11:16 am

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