Streetwise Professor

May 20, 2022

Meade at Gettysburg: A Gap in the (Story) Line

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:26 pm

This C-SPAN video of Kent Masterson Brown talking about his Meade at Gettysburg was sufficiently intriguing that I bought the book, and I’m glad I did. it is a thorough analysis of Meade’s generalship. I am in agreement with most of Brown’s full-throated defense of “that damned old goggle eyed snapping turtle” and his actions at Gettysburg. Laboring under tremendous disadvantages, having been thrown into command unexpectedly, operating with little information about his enemy, and knowing that a baying mob in Washington would crucify him if he failed, Meade responded smartly and professionally, and came away with a great victory.

Hell of a lot of good that did him, though. His post-battle actions were the subject of brutal criticism, by Lincoln no less. As Brown explains in detail, this criticism was incredibly unjust. His battle actions were also second guessed, most notably by the notorious Daniel Sickles and his coterie of political, military, and journalistic backstabbers. Those criticisms were also unfair, as Brown shows. Meade’s shade must be smiling to know he finally has an able defender.

What convinced me to buy the book was the video’s retelling and interpretation of Meade’s actions leading up to the battle, and in particular the “Pipe Creek Circular” (which was also the subject of much post-battle and indeed post-war discussion). In Brown’s telling, thrust into command, Meade was going by the book. The books, actually, namely those of Jomini, Clauswitz, and his old West Point instructor Dennis Hart Mahan.

The textbook approach was (a) to establish a strong position, (b) send out a force (a reconnaissance in force) to cause the enemy to concentrate, (c) have that force withdraw, fighting, drawing the now concentrated enemy back onto the prepared position. According to Brown, this is what Meade intended left wing commander John Reynolds to do with the I and XI corp when he dispatched Reynolds north. Knowing Lee was generally oriented along the Chambersburg Pike that ran through Gettysburg, and receiving word from John Buford that many Confederates were near the town, Meade dispatched Reynolds as his reconnaissance force with the intent of using it to lure Lee onto Meade’s extremely strong Pipe Creek Line some miles to the south.

But Reynolds lost his head, and instead of fencing with Lee and drawing him back onto Pipe Creek, the Pennsylvanian advanced to support Buford, even leading the brigade in the van–the storied Iron Brigade–personally into the fight. For his troubles, Reynolds got a bullet in the back of the head. His successor, Abner Doubleday (whom, ironically, far more people have heard of for exactly the wrong reasons than have ever heard of Reynolds or Meade for that matter), did not know what Reynolds’ or Meade’s intentions were. He concluded that Reynolds must have wanted to fight west and north of Gettysburg, and therefore he would too.

Although the I Corps and some elements of the XI Corps fought valiantly, they were eventually overwhelmed. And here Reynolds’ precipitate decision to fight with the town on his line of retreat turned defeat into disaster. Retreating through the town led to a breakdown in units and mass confusion, and the loss of thousands of prisoners. The panting, panicking remnants, much thinned, rallied–just–on Cemetery Hill to the east of town.

So far, Brown’s story hangs together. Meade sent out a reconnaissance in force, but its commander either misunderstood its purpose or forgot it in the excitement, and brought on a battle in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s the next act in the drama that raises questions about Brown’s interpretation. Hearing of the situation in Gettysburg, Meade sent his trusted chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren to reconnoiter and report back. But crucially, he also sent his junior corps commander, Winfield S. Hancock to Gettysburg with the following instruction: “If you think the ground and position there a better one to fight a battle under the existing circumstances, so advise [me] and [I] will order all the troops up.”

This is not the action of a man with a plan, particularly a plan to draw Lee onto a strong, prepared position. Meade delegated a crucial decision to a man, capable though he was, who had no full understanding of the current disposition of the Army of Potomac or its lines at Pipe Creek or its logistical situation–all relevant considerations for determining the best course of action. Further, if Meade had been so set on his plan (a) he would have explained that to Hancock, so the II Corps commander could have used that information to determine whether it was “better” to fight at Gettysburg or follow Meade’s original plan to fall back to Pipe Creek drawing Lee along with him, and (b) asked Hancock whether a fighting withdrawal from Gettysburg was possible.

Punting such a major decision to an uninformed subordinate does not bespeak commitment to a plan. But Brown is silent on this, which is the weakest point of the book, and something that undercuts his up-until-then plausible argument.

In the event, Hancock concluded that Gettysburg was “the strongest position by nature on which to fight a battle I ever saw,” and recommended to Meade to bring up the army.

Except it wasn’t–as Brown discusses in detail. Hancock only saw a part of what became the battlefield, which happened to be the strongest position. The rest of it, as Meade found out when he arrived and performed a detailed reconnaissance, had severe disadvantages. These almost cost the Army of the Potomac the battle on 2 July.

Moreover, by moving forward to Gettysburg instead of withdrawing the battered survivors of the 1 July battle back to Pipe Creek, Meade greatly exacerbated the already serious logistical handicaps under which he was operating. One of the best parts of Brown’s book is his detailing of these handicaps–including his extended description about how the march away from established supply lines to Gettysburg stretched the Army’s logistics to the breaking point.

Furthermore, advancing to Gettysburg required his already fagged soldiers to undertake forced marches of dozens of miles in heat, humidity, and dust, with too little food and water. It put tremendous strain on horseflesh–another under-appreciated consideration that elsewhere Brown gives due weight. In essence, Meade gave Lee the gift that Meade was hoping to get from Lee: advancing and concentrating on an enemy already in position.

Perhaps there is an explanation for Meade’s actions. Maybe he, like Reynolds, got his blood up and this clouded his judgment. Perhaps he believed that a retreat would be considered treason by the febrile politicians in Washington. Perhaps something else.

But Meade’s decision and decision making (especially delegating such an epochal decision to a subordinate with an extremely narrow perspective) is problematic, at best. I think that it is worse than that, especially given that it cut against every consideration that Brown raises to explain Meade’s actions from the time he took command until news arrived of Reynolds’ death. So an explanation is required, but Brown does not give it. According to Brown, Meade was going by the book. Then he threw the book out the window. Why? We’re not told. There is a serious gap in Brown’s line.

Many mysteries and conundrums surround the battle of Gettysburg–which is why 159 years after the fact it is the subject of book after book, few as good as Brown’s. This is another mystery, and I wish Kent Masterson Brown had attempted to unravel it–not least because he poses it implicitly. Alas, he doesn’t even acknowledge it as a mystery. Which, I guess, creates an opportunity for yet another author to write another book about Gettysburg.

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  1. “Meade was going by the book. Then he threw the book out the window.” Aha, this is all an allusion to governmental reaction to Covid, the difference being that modern governments lost their Gettysburg.

    Still, we can but hope for a re-enactment of the events at Ford’s Theatre.

    Comment by dearieme — May 21, 2022 @ 6:07 am

  2. Professor
    Maybe you should write that book!
    I’d buy that.

    Comment by KavkazWatcher — May 21, 2022 @ 8:03 am

  3. Thank you. Interesting – sent me down a few hours of reading. I have been to Gettysburg twice, read a few Bruce Catton books, had a very good history teacher, and yet had never really even heard of the Pipe Creek plan / debate. I’ve always been more interested in the basic politics around wars to be more consequential; and tend to view that what has happened is what happened, and counterfactuals tend to be a waste of time for the general public (of course important to military practitioners). I am reminded of that strategic genius who said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” What battle plan ever survives the first hour, let alone the first day? I’ve also always been more of a fan of Grant and Sherman than all of the rest. Also, all of the criticism of Meade not pursing the Army of Northern Virginia seems likely pointless, as the Union Army also suffered great attrition.

    To throw out a bit of my reasoning, I remember growing up in the 1970’s all the debates around Patton, Ike and the Normandy breakout. Large numbers of people wanted to believe that if Ike hadn’t held back Patton, he’d have been in Berlin by Christmas 1944. Yet logistics problems were huge, and yes, Ike undoubtedly made a major mistake greenlighting Market Garden (let alone allowing Monty to run it); but the idea that the Western front could have gotten there much quicker seems preposterous when considering the logistical problems, the problems Patton had once reaching the Siegfried line, the ability of the Germans to counter attack with the Battle of the Bulge.

    But the larger point is these arguments represented an actual desire for a counterfactual political outcome vs. Europe post 1945. But would have doing anything different resulted in the desired outcome. While Germany may not have been divided, the Soviets would have still held and controlled much of eastern Europe. About the only way there would have been an alternative outcome would have been if the German Army had decided to surrender to the western allies in 1944 while maintaining the battle in the East. A similar argument could be made about the outcome of the Pacific war. Japan surrenders three to six months earlier, postwar Asia may have looked completely different. But neither did.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — May 24, 2022 @ 8:59 am

  4. Thanks for this post. Way back when, visited the Gettysburg Museum. I seem to remember on display – two bullets which had hit each other. Not quite logistics, etc., but it still had an impact.

    Comment by elmer — May 25, 2022 @ 7:32 am

  5. What military historians of the battle almost never point out is that the reason Gettysburg was the place to fight was OPERATIONAL, not tactical. The “Seven Roads to Gettysburg” concept is the reason why the battle was fought there and the reason why it had to be fought there.

    Meade could stop the invasion of the North and also fight a defensive battle that gave him that advantage by holding and fighting at Gettysburg. TO continue to maintain his offensive in the North, Lee had to push Meade out of Gettysburg. This was because about 2/3 of his army was coming from the west side of the mountains down the Chambersburg pike and the other 1/3 from Carlisle/York regions of Pennsylvania. They could ONLY directly link up and concentrate at Gettysburg.

    Once the Union held the road network south of the town, Lee could no longer go right or left, but only through the Union army, or retreat back the direction he came from.

    Comment by MARK — May 28, 2022 @ 1:52 pm

  6. @Mark. Nice theory. Only problem is there is no evidence for it. Indeed, it is flatly inconsistent with the evidence.

    Meade could read a map. If this road net imperative was in fact driving his planning, he never would have drafted the Pipe Creek Circular, and he wouldn’t have sent just his left wing to Gettysburg. He would have sent his entire army hot footing it there if his objective was to seize the road junction. Further, Hancock (whom I noted was the one who effectively made the decision to concentrate at Gettysburg) did not mention these considerations in his communication with Meade, nor is there any evidence that he pointed that out to anyone on the afternoon/evening of 1 July (e.g., Howard). Hell, Meade wouldn’t have even sent Hancock if he was driven by the operational considerations you mention.

    In sum, this is an ex post rationalization, not an evidence-based historical explanation.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 29, 2022 @ 1:58 pm

  7. And I would add. Look from the other side. If control of the road junction at Gettysburg was so vital to Lee’s plans, why didn’t he seize it well before 1 July, as he could have? Lee could read a map too (though his maps were not that great.). He was actually furious with A.P. Hill and Henry Heth for getting into a full-scale engagement there. That wouldn’t be the case if he thought Gettysburg was operationally essential.

    Longstreet recommended going around Meade’s left, which demonstrates that the Confederates’ ability to maneuver wasn’t contingent on controlling Gettysburg. Lee of course rejected Longstreet’s advice, but not because he believed he needed the road junction, which he mentions not at all in his report:

    It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base, unless attacked by the enemy, but, finding ourselves unexpectedly confronted by the Federal Army, it became a matter of difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. At the same time, the country was unfavorable for collecting supplies while in the presence of the enemy’s main body, as he was enabled to restrain our foraging parties by occupying the passes of the mountains with regular and local troops. A battle thus became in a measure, unavoidable. Encouraged by the successful issue of the engagement of the first day, and in view of the valuable results that would ensue from the defeat of the army of General Meade, it was thought advisable to renew the attack.

    Longstreet intimated that it was sheer bloody mindedness that led Lee to continue the fight: “If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.” (Though one must always be chary about Longstreet’s post-war recollections.)

    Looked at from either the Federal or Confederate perspective, Gettysburg was an accidental battle that happened to take place at a major road junction, not a battle that occurred because the sides were consciously aiming to control that junction. The confluence of roads facilitated the concentration of forces there, but it is not why the forces concentrated there.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 29, 2022 @ 2:20 pm

  8. @KavkazWatcher. Wow, Gettysburg is a long way from the Caucasus 😉 Thanks for your kind words. Years ago I had planned to retire to write Civil War books. I have been enjoying my work so much that I have put those plans on hold. But I have been giving them further consideration, and trying to figure out how to taper down work and ramp up a Civil War writing project.

    It likely wouldn’t be Gettysburg though. I’m more a Western theater guy. So something about Stones River, Chickamauga, Shiloh, or the Atlanta Campaign, most likely.

    Appreciate your interest. If I start the project, I’ll announce it here.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 29, 2022 @ 2:30 pm

  9. Except the original “by the book” plan wouldn’t have worked.
    Lee was dug in at Cashtown, he had Meade in a nasty fork. Either attack a fortified position specifically chosen for defender, or the Army of Northern Virginia had an unimpeded line of march on Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC, with the Army of the Potomac only able to regroup and defend one.

    Then A.P. Hill committed hard on the reconnaissance in force, and the ghost of Sharpsburg/Antietam reared its head. (After winning the battle, but losing the propaganda war over the results of the battle, the Confederates were terrified of leaving the field of battle under their opponent’s control.)

    Had the recon in force gone by the book, Lee would have gotten AP Hill back on his leash, Stuart would have returned in time to retake command of the cavalry screening force before battle, and we’d have gone down the other leg of the trousers of time. (I’m only half joking when I say the ACW is full of evidence that time travel exists.)

    Comment by Luke — May 29, 2022 @ 9:15 pm

  10. @ cpirrong

    Except nothing I stated was theoretical. A cursory review of an 1863 map shows this fact. Control of the Gettysburg road network south of the town meant that Lee’s army had to go through the Union army or retreat. This makes the revisionist views of the Longstreet “fans” false. The Confederate army could not move around either of the Union’s flanks.

    The decision to fight at Gettysburg was dictated to both sides because of the operational nature of Gettysburg, not the tactical. Lee could not maneuver around the Union army positioned where it was. Meade found the critical position that blocked COnfederate operational mobility and forced them to either attack or retreat.

    Further, the Union Army had already advanced beyond the positions of the Pipe Creek positions. Once Meade understood the operational situation it was an easy decision to concentrate his army there. And once there was contact witht eh Union Army, Lee had not other alternatives of where to concentrate his army.

    Comment by MARK — June 3, 2022 @ 6:20 pm

  11. @Mark. You looked at a map. Good for you! The issue is what was in Meade’s (and Hancock’s) minds, not yours 159 years later. Period. The documentary record does not support, and indeed contradicts, your assertions. You are committing the cardinal historians sin of hindsight bias, and projecting onto historical actors your thinking.

    Your issue is really with Kent Masterson Brown. He’s the one who, based on a thorough analysis of the documentary record, concluded that Meade’s operational concept was to force Lee to deploy and then draw him back onto the Pipe Creek Line. Read his book, and tell us what he got wrong.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 8, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

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