Approaches to Gettysburg


"General Sickles, this is in some respects higher ground than that to the rear, but there is still higher in front of you, and if you keep on advancing you will find constantly higher ground all the way to the mountains."

Maj. General George Meade, Army of the Potomac
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General Meade was given command of the Army of the Potomac (AoP) three days before Gettysburg. While most AoP commanders had several months to ready a staff and tune the army, Meade had no choice but to start immediately in pursuit of Lee.

Meade had orders to cover Washington. This was a perpetual problem for the AoP. The War Department was conservative. In spite of a ring of forts, they constantly directed the AoP to move right and left to keep itself between Washington and Lee. (A year later, Grant would order Sheridan to put himself south of the enemy, and follow them to the death. Lincoln, noting the exchange, told Grant that this was exactly right, but warned that the War Department would block such an action if Grant did not press it.)

Meade also had political difficulties. While Lincoln sought perpetually a general who would fight, the Congress sought commanders who were Republican and devout abolitionists. Meade was Lincoln's latest attempt to find a fighter. Sickles was a politician, a friend and political ally of General Hooker, the AoP commander Meade replaced. Sickles taking his III Corps forward at Gettysburg might have been done as much in spite as for glory or for military reasons. Certainly, Sickles continued political and public relations attacks on Meade well after the war ended.

Finally, not only Meade but the whole Army of the Potomac had a problem in confidence. By one report, it was not a lack of faith in the northern generals, but an extreme high respect for Robert E. Lee. The AoP had been defeated too often. The Gettysburg campaign was fought by the north on the defensive, tactically and emotionally. While they finally managed to protect themselves from the south's traditional flanking maneuvers, they did so passively. An aggressive general might have viewed Lee's habit of dividing his army as opportunity. No one in the Gettysburg command staff contemplated taking advantage of southern dispersion by going on the offensive.

Meade divided his army into three wings of several Corps each, started them north, fanning them out into an east-west line shielding Washington from Lee. The three wings had to be spread to cover Washington, but had to be close enough to support one another. Each wing was put under the command of a general trusted by Meade. As the army started north after Lee, Meade developed plans for a defensive line at Pipe Creek. Like Longstreet, Meade wanted to fight on the defensive from high ground. Meade's Pipe Creek Circular established plans for the three army wings to cover Washington from a northeast to southwest running ridge.

Approaches to Gettysburg

The Pipe Creek plan never went into effect. At Gettysburg, twenty miles in front of Meade's proposed Pipe Creek line, Union Cavalry General Buford had also recognized good ground for a defensive stand. Not having received the Pipe Creek plan, suspecting but not certain that Lee was concentrating his entire force on Gettysburg, Buford resolved to protect the "lovely ground" at Gettysburg, and called on General Reynold's left wing of the AoP to support him.

"They will attack you in the morning; and they will come 'booming' -- skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive."

Brigadier General John Buford, 1st Division, US Cavalry
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Meade's march north was logical and perhaps unremarkable, except the rate of travel. The Gettysburg campaign was unusual for the amount of ground covered by the Army of the Potomac. With the exception of the Petersburg to Appomatox Court House final campaign, the AoP never moved so far so fast. The Gettysburg marches were long remembered as exhausting, with 20 to 30 miles covered per day a common achievement.

Mead's marching doctrine might well have been influenced by General Grant's Vicksburg campaign. Grant had loaded his men with food and ammunition, crossed the Mississippi River, then proceeded on several days of hard marching and hard fighting while not maintaining a supply train. As his columns were not slowed by wagons, and he needed not expend troops to guard the trains, Grant was able to rapidly fight two quick battles and establish a siege before returning to the Mississippi to resupply. The Gettysburg campaign was the first eastern effort following Grant's innovative Vicksburg marches. Meade extensively parked his wagon trains, giving first priority on roads to the fighting troops.

"I could not believe they were all there"

R. E. Lee

In 1862, the Army of the Potomac averaged 6 miles a day on the march. Increasing this suddenly to 20 miles plus severely upset southern expectations and planning. Had Meade not parked the wagons, Stuart's eastward route to join Early in York would have worked in a timely fashion. Lee would have had a screening and scouting force informing him of Union troop locations. Finally, while some small part of the Army of the Potomac might have reached Gettysburg on the first three days of July, they could not all be there. Any assault launched on July 2nd and 3rd would have been launched against a portion of the Army of the Potomac, not the full force. Lee ordered Longstreet's failed July 2nd and 3rd assaults under the assumption that the South still enjoyed the same sort of numbers advantage as they had on July 1st.

This change in marching doctrine is much neglected in the histories, but is key to two southern controversies. Why was Lee pushing the offensive on July 2nd and 3rd? Lee believed he had a numbers advantage. He "could not believe they were all there" waiting for him on Cemetery Ridge. Why was Stuart late in joining Lee? Stuart wasn't late. The Union was early, moving troops between Stuart and Lee faster than expected, forcing Stuart to fight, and not giving him time to perform his scouting mission before the battle opened. Lee and Stuart made their decisions based on years of experience dealing with the Army of the Potomac. Their critics fault them based on 20 20 hindsight, complete knowledge of where the Union troops actually were, the equivalent of perfect scouting, neglecting entirely the fog of war. It might be more reasonable to credit Meade for upgrading the performance of the Union Army rather than fault Lee and Stuart for basing plans on past experience.

Ironically, Lee too had dropped his line of supply, also imitating a western strategy. However, Lee was raiding, not parking his wagons for speed. No way could Lee protect a supply line from Pennsylvania back to Virginia. Still, there were several times where Lee could have speeded his troops along by parking his wagons. The traffic jam coming through the South Mountain passes could have been relieved by a troops first wagons last policy. Both commanders were borrowing innovative logistic ideas from the western campaigns, but with different emphasis.

Southern historians still debate what Lee's strategy was, or ought to have been. If well over a century later, we still are not sure of Lee's thinking, consider that Meade had to account for all possibilities of what Lee might have been trying to do. If Lee was attempting to aggressively strike dispersed and exhausted Union columns, Meade had to keep his men within supporting distance of one another, and rapidly concentrate once the battle started. If Lee was threatening Washington, Meade had to keep between Lee and Washington. If Lee was seeking defensive battle, Meade would have to be careful to only commit to battle on favorable terms. If Lee was seeking to avoid battle, Meade would have to put enough men close enough to Lee's army that he would have to stop raiding, would have to concentrate for battle, and thus would have to either give battle or starve.

By ordering Meade to protect Washington, the War Department forced Meade on the strategic defensive. Meade could not impose his will on Lee. He could only try to prevent Lee from imposing his own will. The problem, and not an easy problem in this case, is that the defending army does not know what the aggressor army intends, and thus has to counter anything they might try. Meade did this. While it is still quite possible to ask what Lee was trying to achieve, or second guess what Lee ought to have tried to achieve, one cannot be too critical of Meade's response. Lee's intent, whatever it was, was anticipated and blocked.

Next: Position Maps showing the three days marching towards Gettysburg.