Four Days in July: Ulysses S. Grant

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822.  His maternal grandfather picked his first name.  His own father picked his middle, choosing to name him after the Romanized version of Odysseus.[1]

We, of course, do not know him as Hiram Ulysses Grant.  He’s passed in to history as Ulysses S. Grant.  It seems a mistake was made when he was signed up for West Point and his name changed overnight.  It is fitting, though, that history would remember the seventeen year-old who was all of 5’1” and 117 pounds when he went to West Point with the same name as that wiliest of Greeks.  Odysseus was not highly regarded for his prowess on the battlefield, after all, but for his cunning and ability to win through intelligence and trickery.

Our Ulysses, however, was not always so clever as his namesake.  There is a story of his attempt to purchase a horse.  When he was nine he had enough money for his first colt.  He approached the owner, and when asked what his offer was, Grant responded, “Papa says I may offer you $20 for the colt, but if you won’t take that I am to offer you $22.50.  And if you won’t take that, to give you $25.”  He walked out with a colt and 25 fewer dollars in his pocket.  It was not an auspicious beginning to a career as a horse trader.  He would prove to be an uninterested student, as well, although mostly because of that strange situation where a bright student underachieves because of an undemanding curriculum.  West Point would be more demanding, but Ulysses only went at the insistence of his father, so it’s not difficult to imagine that his disinterest in education would have continued.

For all its reputation as an elite military institution, West Point barely taught the martial arts during the first few decades of its existence.  It seems that the United States was mostly interested in creating an educated officer corps.  The early United States Army was to be lead by engineers and philosophers, not warriors.

Still, those who were interested studied the campaigns of Napoleon in their spare time.  It was nearly four decades since Waterloo, but a cult of Napoleon was growing within the officer corps of the United States.  It would have been hard to choose a better idol than Napoleon for strategic purposes.  From a tactical perspective an officer corps that had studied Napoleon and faced off against itself was a liability at the outset of the Civil War.

The American Civil War ushered in a new age of fighting.  Forces that began the war marching in column and deploying a hundred yards from their opposites in the manner of Napoleonic infantry tactics finished the war by digging trenches and earthworks and turning the Virginia countryside into a preview of the hellish trenches of World War I.  Ulysses S. Grant would end up being largely responsible for the shift.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Grant graduated 21st in a class of 39.  This does not completely tell the story.  At the same time Grant attended West Point he rubbed elbows with Thomas Jefferson Jackson, George B. McClellan, William Tecumseh Sherman, James Longstreet, Don Carlos Buell, Fitz-John Porter, William S. Rosencrans, George Thomas, George Pickett, A.P. Hill, and Winfield Scott Hancock.  These were all men who would go on to become generals in the Civil War.

Before the Civil War there was the Mexican-American War.  It was a baptism of fire for the young officer corps.  When Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor took a force from the north that included Braxton Bragg, Jefferson Davis (who would not be a general, but the President of the Confederate States of America), and a regimental quartermaster named Ulysses S. Grant, the prevailing sentiment was that the war would be over quickly.  As so often happens in war, it wasn’t. Taylor’s move was blunted.

President James K. Polk decided on an end run.  Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott landed a force at Vera Cruz and drove toward Mexico City.  His officer corps included Robert E. Lee, Joe Johnston, Gideon Pillow, PGT Beauregard, and Ulysses S. Grant.  In the climactic Battle of Chapultepec Grant and a Sergeant named Robertson carried a mountain howitzer to the top of a church bell tower in order to gain a tactical advantage.  This move was copied by a naval officer named Raphael Semmes, who would go on to become the captain of the CSS Alabama, the most famous Confederate blockade runner and probably the third-most famous ship of the Civil War behind the Monitor and the Merrimac/Virginia.

Grant’s bravery and quick thinking did not win him a lasting post in the Army after the Mexican-American War.  In the mid-1850s he was cashiered and headed to Illinois to start a farm, which he called Hardscrabble.  Part of his problem was that Grant had no military bearing whatsoever.  As biographer Geoffrey Perret put it, he “possessed as much military bearing as a sack of potatoes.”  That, plus his bad habit of drunkeness, would haunt him through his career.

With the Civil War looming Grant signed up for the volunteer army and ended up in Cairo, Illinois.  John C. Fremont, known as The Pathfinder, was one of those great American adventurers. His resume included pretty much single-handedly wrestling California from Mexico during the Mexican-American War and an unsuccessful run at the Presidency, wasn’t much of a general, but he was a good judge of character.  He put Grant in charge of the troops in Cairo.  He also built a fleet of ironclad river gunboats, as prescient a decision as anyone made in the early days of the Civil War.

The war started in April of 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter.  The first major engagement came on July 21, with the Union debacle at First Bull Run, the battle where Thomas Jefferson Jackson became Stonewall after General Bernard Bee cried, in an attempt to rally his own troops, “Look at Jackson, standing like a stone wall!”  Irvin McDowell, Union commander at Bull Run, was replaced by George B. McClellan, who sat on the north side of the Potomac, built up the Army of the Potomac, and believed his Pinkerton spies when they came back with reports that Joe Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia was three or four times its actual size.  The action in the east ground to a halt.

At the tail-end of 1861 it became obvious to Confederate General Leonidas Polk, a former West Pointer and Episcopal Bishop, that Kentucky would be crucial in the defense of the south.  He moved up to the banks of the Cumberland, at which point he was replaced by Albert Sydney Johnston, one of the best generals on the Confederate side.

Johnston only had about 45,000 troops to defend the entire Kentucky frontier, so he concentrated his forces in fortresses.  He built up Columbus, Ohio, then built two forts – Henry and Donelson – to guard the approaches along the Cumberland.  It would fall to Grant to take those forts down and open the way to Nashville, Tennessee.

This was a strategic issue.  Natural defenses are the most important aspects of warfare, especially in a time when armies moved at the speed of weary, foot-sore infantry.  Contested territory was generally taken a few yards or maybe a mile at a time.  A marching column in uncontested territory could only be expected to move ten or twenty miles.  If forced to march long distances they were generally useless when they reached their destination.

So if the Union could reduce Forts Henry and Donelson, they’d have access to the south side of the Cumberland River and be able to use the river as a highway to reach Johnston’s bastion at Columbus.  One of Sun-Tzu’s timeless maxims of war is that it’s best to win a battle without ever engaging.  Taking Henry and Donelson meant it would be possible to force Johnston to withdraw even from Tennessee without a major battle.

Henry was easy enough to take.  The fort flooded the night before, so when Foote’s gunboats appeared around a bend in the Cumberland the fort was nearly defenseless.  Grant arrived with his army and the taking of the fort was almost anticlimactic.  Donelson was tougher.  Johnston reinforced it after the fall of Henry and it wasn’t about to get flooded.

After three days of shelling the commanders of Donelson asked for terms.  Grant replied, “No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.”  The reply resonated with an exasperated public and people started to say that Grant’s real name was “Unconditional Surrender.”

All was not well, though.  Henry Halleck, Grant’s boss, was conspiring with George McClellan, at that time head of the entire Union Army as well as commander of the Army of the Potomac, to get Grant kicked out.  When Lincoln fired McClellan from his supreme command duties and suggested he get his rear in gear and take the Army of the Potomac to the field it broke Halleck’s plans.  He sent Grant back in to the field, but not until after enough time had passed that Johnston and PGT Beauregard were able to re-build the western armies.

After abandoning Columbus and Nashville, Beauregard and Johnston re-grouped at Corinth, Mississippi with an army of about 50,000.  Grant followed with a column of 45,000 while Don Carlos Buell moved to join with an additional 25,000.  When Grant made camp at Pittsburgh Landing near Shiloh Church 20 miles from Corinth with Buell a few days off the Confederates made their move.

They hit the Union encampment at Shiloh on the morning of April 6, 1862 while Grant was several miles upriver in conference with his generals.  The Confederates nearly pushed the Union in to the river while Grant rushed southwards.  He arrived in nick of time to organize a last-ditch defensive line anchored by gunboats.  The following morning, reinforced by Buell and an errant division that had wandered through the woods instead of marching to the sound of the guns the previous day, the Union troops pushed the Confederates back.  They retreated to Corinth.

The Union lost 13,000 men at Shiloh and the Confederacy just under 11,000.  But the cost was greater for the Confederacy, as the South could ill-afford to lose men at that ratio.

Rumor spread in the aftermath of Shiloh that Grant was drunk at the outset of the battle and this created the near disaster.  Inquiries were called and Grant nearly lost his job for the second time in the war.  Following an impassioned plea to Lincoln to ditch Grant, Lincoln replied, “I cannot spare this man.  He fights.”

The uproar did allow Halleck to temporarily take matters out of Grant’s hands.  Halleck took personal command of Grant’s forces and took Corinth from Beauregard, at which point he pretty much stopped doing anything.  There was wisdom to Lincoln’s statement as to Grant’s value as an army commander.

Grant wouldn’t get back out of the woods until July of 1862, but his position was never again as perilous as in the days immediately following Shiloh.

The damage was done by Halleck, however.  He’d allowed Beauregard’s army to escape from Corinth.  As long as there was a viable Confederate force in the neighborhood, the Union couldn’t move with impunity.  That, combined with a temporary operational shift to eastern Tennessee, delayed the Union’s domination of the all-important Mississippi River.

Grant was forced to wait nearly a year to launch his master stroke.



[1]I’m going citation-lite in these, since I’m doing most of the Civil War entries from memory.  However, my best source on Grant is Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret.  My copy of The American Heritage New History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton is also invaluable…


Four Days in July: Robert E Lee

I think that we have a common misconception about Robert E. Lee.  It’s one of those things that’s fairly common in history, I suppose.  We assume their greatness was known to everyone in their time because we already know their story.

We know the legend of Robert E. Lee.  He was the officer both sides desperately wanted on their side.  He was the general who was destined to run the Union ragged throughout the Civil War.  He was the guy who would have won the fight in a few months for the Union.

It’s true that both sides wanted him.  He had a reputation as a brilliant engineer and a capable commander.  Lincoln wanted to put him in a fairly high command position.  Jefferson Davis did make him one of the CSA’s first five full generals.

The part we miss in looking at Lee as the man he became is that Lee didn’t want to fight for the South.  He had nothing good to say about the CSA and intended to fight for the Union until Virginia seceded. It was only then that Lee chose the side with which he is synonymous. Virginia even made him commander of all the state’s forces.

At the outset of the war Lee wasn’t put in charge of a major field army.  Joe Johnston and PGT Beauregard were the Confederate commanders at First Bull Run.  Lee’s first battle was in the sideshow over West Virginia (which didn’t much like Virginia as a whole and seceded from the larger state at the outset of the war). It was an ignominious beginning He lost at Cheat Mountain due, of all things, to being too timid.

Let’s remember Lee’s reputation.  He was a brilliant engineer and artillery officer.  There really aren’t any stories out of the Mexican-American War of Lee making audacious moves like Grant’s decision to sneak behind enemy lines and carry a howitzer up a bell tower.

After Cheat Mountain Lee spent most of his time arranging defenses.  He dug trenches around Richmond. Eventually he was made Jefferson Davis’s prime military advisor, a position that meant absolutely nothing in terms of influence. No one trusted Robert E Lee in the field. His most spectacular success in this role came in the spring of 1862 and didn’t involve the command of a field army.

McClellan had some 130,000 troops at his command, which gave him a significant advantage over the Confederate forces, which probably numbered somewhere around 70,000 at the time.  McClellan, however, believed his force was outnumbered.  His Pinkerton spies consistently overestimated the numbers of Confederate forces, something the Southerners were only too happy to reinforce by building fortifications topped with “Quaker guns:” logs mounted on walls as if they were cannon. Those seemingly impregnable defenses were Lee’s doing and they probably saved Richmond in 1862.

The Civil War is mostly thought of as a fight over a ninety mile stretch of ground.  Washington D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capitol, were that close.  So both sides naturally assumed that all it would take was a few days’ march, a fight for one city or the other, and the war would be over.

It’s almost a quaint notion, but everyone thinks wars will be over fast.  “We’ll lick ‘em good and be home by Christmas,” is the sentiment that starts pretty much every conflict.  That rarely happens, especially for something as contentious as a civil war.

The Civil War contained firsts on many levels.  It was the first war that featured rifled weapons.  It was the first war that featured combat between purpose-built ironclad warships without sails.  It was the first war to really take advantage of the speed of railroads.  It was also the first war fought in newspapers.

The American Civil War was revolutionary for the involvement of the press in ways that can only be paralleled by the Vietnam War.  The conflict of a century later is the first time war footage was taken directly from the battlefields and put in to television sets on the home front.  The Civil War was the first war that was photographed.  It was the first war that involved telegraph dispatches, allowing newspapers to get immediate wire copy of the events on distant battlefields.

In previous wars George McClellan might have been able to get away with sitting on his rump waiting for the right time.  In the Civil War he had no chance.  Daily reports went out with details of the Army of the Potomac’s lack of movement.  Political cartoons ridiculing the general’s timidity ran in newspapers.

Those same newspapers would later carry Matthew Brady’s photographs of mangled corpses and burn into human memory the names of such places as The Sunken Road, The Bloody Angle, and The Hornet’s Nest.  To this list of firsts in the Civil War we must add that it was the first war to truly, definitively, burst the bubble of the romance of war.  From the war we got books like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage that call in to question everything we’ve always assumed about the glory of war.  Sadly, it seems that every generation has to re-learn that particular lesson from the Civil War.

Lincoln finally got McClellan’s massive juggernaut moving south in the spring of 1862.  Rather than head down to Richmond through Manassas Junction and re-fight the Battle of Bull Run, McClellan decided to out-flank Joe Johnston, land at the mouth of the James River, and head towards Richmond from the South.  This move caught the Confederates by surprise and Johnston ended up sitting at Manassas Junction with his pants around his ankles.

The South still had an ace in the hole. They knew that Washington would freak at even the suggestion of an assault.  They moved to exploit this fear and put Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley with about 8,000 troops.

The Shenandoah Valley was one of the most important bits of territory in the Civil War.  It was a fertile larder for the South and a dagger pointed straight at Washington.  Late in the war Jubal Early would take a force all the way up the Shenandoah Valley to the suburbs of Washington.

But we’re still in 1862.  Stonewall Jackson was in the Shenandoah Valley with about 8,000 troops.  Washington freaked out, exactly as the Confederates predicted. They pulled Irvin McDowell’s corps out of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan effectively started the Peninsula Campaign with 40,000 casualties. The already worried commander would be going to Richmond with only 90,000 troops. All to counter 8,000 men under Stonewall Jackson.

The Federals sent two armies into the Shenandoah Valley after Stonewall Jackson, one under Nathaniel Banks and the other under John C. Fremont.  Each army outnumbered Jackson two-to-one.  Yet from the end of March to the beginning of April, Jackson ran the Union ragged. His army slogged up and down rain-choked roads, staying just barely ahead of the Union forces with every step.

Eventually Lee managed to free up enough troops to roughly double Jackson’s army and the rain stopped.  He won brilliant victories on June 8 and 9 at Cross Keys and Port Republic, then slipped out of the valley.  Jackson’s 17,000 troops tied up about 50,000 Union troops at a critical moment.

Joe Johnston was injured at Fair Oaks facing off against McClellan.  Jefferson Davis put Lee in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia.  This move angered a lot of people, who thought Lee’s battlefield legacy should have ended at Cheat Mountain.  Their nickname for him was “Granny Lee.”

That nickname didn’t last long.  At the tail-end of June and on into July Lee led his army, reinforced to 92,000, against McClellan, who now had 106,000 troops.  Lee couldn’t take everybody with him.  They were too close to Richmond.  It really didn’t matter.  McClellan was timid and about a third of his troops were separated from the main body by the Chickahominy River.  So when Lee struck the Army of the Potomac only had 65,000 troops.

For seven days the two armies fought the prosaically-titled Seven Days’ Battles.  Lee won every engagement, but missed chances to bring McClellan to the point of annihilation at Mechanicsville and Frayser’s Farm when expected attacks by Stonewall Jackson didn’t materialize.  Jackson claimed to be sick at Mechanicsville, an excuse that is difficult to simply dismiss. He force marched his troops for three months, constantly looking for momentary advantages against forces superior in number if not leadership skill. He then made another forced march in order to engage in a desperate fight at the gates of his own capitol. Stonewall Jackson was not one to shy away from the fight.

It would be the last time Jackson would fail.  Unfortunately for Lee the failures at Mechanicsville and Frayser’s Farm meant a golden opportunity passed him by.

The Union managed to avoid disaster.  Even so, the Army of Northern Virginia would prove too much for anyone in the theater to handle. That army and its new commander were on their way to the halls of myth and legend.

Four Days in July: 2nd Bull Run

Lee might have won the Seven Days’ Battles, but he was in trouble.  McClellan was still sitting outside Richmond with a viable field army.  Even though Stonewall Jackson managed to tie up a significant Union force in the Shenandoah he’d never possessed the ability to destroy it.

The disparate forces – Banks’, Fremont’s, and McDowell’s armies – were gathered together and put under the command of John Pope.  This force was poised to move straight from Washington to Richmond, completely avoiding Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the process.

Lee had four things on his side.

The first was a concept used to great effect by Frederick the Great, one of the greatest generals in all of history.  Lee, like the generals before and since, stood on the shoulders of giants. During the summer of 1862 Lee stood on the shoulders of Frederick the Great, Gustavus Adolphus, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Firearms entered use in European armies in the late medieval period.  By the Renaissance they were well established but not necessarily well used.  Early hand guns, as they were called to differentiate them from field guns, were slow, inaccurate, and nearly as dangerous to their owners as their targets.  Most handgunners were not equipped to face off against heavy infantry or charging cavalry and were handicapped compared to archers by the significantly reduced effective range of their weapons.  Unescorted handgunners usually found themselves at a huge disadvantage on the battlefield.

Melee infantry continued to play a role on the battlefield.  Armor was virtually useless against guns, so heavy infantry was replaced by light forces armed with long pikes who would form the first line of defense against cavalry.  Cavalry changed, too.  Knights disappeared, replaced by light, fast cavalry armed with sabers and, eventually, single shot pistols.

The first true revolution in the gunpowder age came in the early 1600s with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and the New Model Army.  Matchlock muskets had replaced the primitive weapons of the Renaissance, allowing more consistent fire.  Gustavus Adolphus was the first to see the advantages the new weapons provided and capitalize on them.

The main innovation he brought to the New Model Army was drill.  Rather than unguided masses of gunners between a dozen and thirty ranks deep, Gustavus Adolphus reduced his ranks to three, allowing his forces to engage in a rolling advance.  The third rank reloaded, the second rank prepared to fire, and the first rank fired.  When the first rank fired the other two ranks could move up or the first could move back, allowing a continuous storm of fire and an orderly advance or retreat.

Gustavus Adolphus also re-invented combined-arms tactics.  He mixed cavalry in with the infantry to allow quick exploitation of gaps in the enemy line.  More importantly, he pioneered the use of light, mobile field guns to provide supporting fire at key points on the battlefield.  He also intentionally held forces back in order to reinforce the line in the event of imminent breakthrough or breakdown.

About a century later Frederick the Great would take the next step forward in preparation for the Seven Years’ War.  He refined the drill and got infantry marching in cadence.  This allowed his troops to rapidly change formation, moving from route to battle formation far more quickly than previous armies.

He also made expert use of interior lines. During the Seven Years’ War Prussia was outnumbered and surrounded from the outset. The only reason Frederick the Great managed to hang on was because he was in a geographically small area surrounded by enemies who were spread out and not always moving in a coordinated fashion.  The Prussian Army was able to move from one hotspot to another, then outmaneuver their enemies on the battlefield.

Frederick the Great was also the beneficiary of that most fickle battlefield ally: luck.  At the moment it seemed that Prussia had finally run out of steam, Empress Elizabeth of Russia died and opposition to Prussia fell apart.  Sometimes that’s what it takes, though.

The two main Napoleonic strategic innovations were also at play.  These were the central position and the envelopment.  Central position involved the concentration of power against a foe with superior numbers.  If an inferior force can hold local superiority at key points, it can win the day.  Envelopment is both a strategic and tactical move.  It involved moving around the enemy’s flanks while cutting off communications and threatening stores.

In the summer of 1862 Lee had the advantage of interior lines when dealing with Pope and McClellan.  This advantage only worked because of three other advantages Lee had: John Pope, George B. McClellan, and Henry Halleck.

Henry Halleck, as already discussed, was U.S. Grant’s boss out west who wanted Grant booted from the army.  His star was on the rise in the summer of 1862 specifically because of the successes of his least-favorite subordinate.  Lincoln believed Halleck had the answers the Union needed, so he brought him to Washington and put him in command of the Union armies.  It turned out that with Halleck was no great general when his subordinates were terrible.

McClellan stayed put on the bank of the James River asking for reinforcements.  Pope moved slowly towards Richmond, stopping to establish a supply depot at Manassas Junction.  He was close to the site of the previous spring’s battle at Bull Run.  As was often the case in the Civil War, the South called the battles by different names.  To the Confederates that battle was known as Manassas.

John Pope’s Army of Virginia had just over 50,000 men.  Lee had 55,000, making this particular engagement one of the few where Lee actually enjoyed an advantage in numbers.  Lee’s strategic position didn’t actually allow him to take immediate advantage. Pope’s forces were strung out across northern Virginia and Washington was taking McClellan’s army apart a corps at a time and moving them up from the Peninsula to reinforce Pope.

Lee proceeded to break one of the most important rules in the book.  He split his forces in half and sent Jackson around behind Pope to hit his supplies at Manassas Junction.  Lee stayed with Longstreet to stay in front of Pope and give the impression the Confederates were going to stay on the defensive.

On his way to Manassas Junction Jackson attempted his own version of Napoleon’s central position.  He fought his old opponent, Nathaniel Banks, at Cedar Mountain.  This time it was Jackson who held the numerical advantage and he severely mangled Banks’ force.  The battle and a heat wave pinned Jackson in place long enough for Pope to concentrate his forces.  Jackson missed his chance to pull a Napoleon.

Confederate cavalry under JEB Stuart kept Pope distracted and the Army of Virginia couldn’t carry the attack to the heavily outnumbered Jackson.  Eventually Jackson slipped through the Thoroughfare Gap and hit Manassas Junction itself.  The Confederates destroyed what they couldn’t carry, then withdrew before Pope could react.

Jackson then fought a short battle at Brawner’s Farm and settled down at the edges of the old Bull Run battlefield to wait for Longstreet.  Pope attacked Jackson with a roughly three-to-one advantage and managed to completely bungle the entire thing.  He couldn’t send clear orders to Irvin McDowell and Fitz-John Porter about an attack on the Confederate right flank and neither man moved.  Pope didn’t bother to follow up and ordered some additional feints that were beat back easily.

He then decided that he was on the verge of victory.  Even the imminent arrival of Longstreet’s corps through the Thoroughfare Gap didn’t faze Pope.  He decided Longstreet was there to cover Jackson’s retreat from the battlefield.

No one was more surprised than John Pope when Longstreet’s corps steamrolled the Union left flank on the morning of August 30. The Second Bull Run was a decisive Union loss.

Meanwhile, George McClellan was about ten or twelve miles away in Alexandria with about 25,000 troops from the Army of the Potomac.  It’s widely believed that McClellan intentionally stayed out of the fight in an attempt to discredit Pope.  McClellan was thin-skinned and a politician and he knew that if Pope lost the battle Lincoln would have little sympathy. What was left of Pope’s Army of Virginia was folded in to the Army of the Potomac, which was left under the command of McClellan.  Pope was sent to Minnesota to fight the Sioux.

Lee once again had defeated a numerically superior force through superior strategy and tactics. He attempted to capitalize on the victory at Bull Run and set the stage for the single most important engagement of the Civil War.

Four Days in July: Antietam

Most of history turns on small events.  We learn the big things, the dates and names that, as they say, “go down in history.”  But it’s usually the small things that matter most and set the stage for those huge events.

A small thing set in motion one of the biggest events of the Civil War.  We don’t know the name of the person involved in the small thing.  We do know he was a Confederate courier because no one else would have been in possession of Lee’s orders to his widespread command.  We also don’t know the name of the Union soldier who found the orders and took them to McClellan’s headquarters.

It was September of 1862, Lee was fresh off of his stunning victory at Second Bull Run and looking to capitalize.  He decided to invade the north.  Mid-term elections were coming up and one of the stories of this campaign is that Lee invaded to influence the election. If the Union public thought they weren’t safe, so the theory goes, they’d vote in a Congress that would sue for peace. There was also a component of convincing Maryland to join the Confederacy involved in the theory. While history indicates that Confederate President Jefferson Davis believed this was a possibility there’s very little evidence Lee actually had any of this in his plans. Lee’s goals were far more grounded in military necessity. Northern Virginia was ravaged after a hard year’s fighting and Lee needed to move the war away from his breadbasket and attempt to plunder the North. He would make the same move again the following summer.

This period of the war is generally known as the Confederate High Tide.  At the same time Lee was moving into Maryland Braxton Bragg was moving through Kentucky and attempting to make up for the losses of Forts Henry and Donelson and Columbus.  He believed that if he moved a powerful enough force in to Kentucky the poor, oppressed Kentuckians who were being ill-treated by the Union government would cast off their chains and join the Confederacy in droves.

Bragg’s maneuvers would have a powerful effect on the progress of the war in the west, but not exactly in the way he expected.  In the fall of 1862 there were three main Union armies spread across the western theater.  Don Carlos Buell was in Ohio with the Army of the Ohio, William Rosecrans was in Corinth with the Army of the Mississippi, and Grant was spread out in between covering supply lines with the Army of the Tennessee.  Against these three forces the Confederates could deploy Bragg’s Army of Mississippi and Kirby Smith’s Army of East Tennessee (later combined in to the Army of Tennessee)[1] along with the small Army of the West under General Van Dorn and a hodgepodge of troops under General Sterling Price that apparently warranted no official name.

In spite of it all the South held the advantage in the west.  Bragg and Smith were outmaneuvering Buell in Tennessee and headed straight for the Ohio River with no real opposition.  If Van Dorn and Price could pin Rosecrans in place Grant would be split between the two forces.  If Bragg could get Kentucky to rise he could invade Ohio or take out Grant’s army.  In short, Braxton Bragg held the initiative in the west just as Lee held the initiative in the east.

Of course there were a lot of ifs in that previous paragraph.  The biggest if was out of the control of any of the field commanders.

England had an alliance with the Confederate States of America in everything but name.  These were the days of the early Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and the hungry textile mills of the island nation were fed by King Cotton.  It was one of those situations where moral stances are conveniently ignored in the name of, well, convenience.

England was not a fan of slavery.  It was not legal and the British Navy regularly stopped slave ships.  Still, England needed cotton and the Confederates knew it.  Throughout the war the British outfitted blockade runners and commerce raiders for the South.  The Brits also came close to building ironclad rams for the Confederate Navy, but eventually backed down.  In 1872 an international tribunal ruled that the British were liable to the United States for the actions of British-built privateers in the amount of fifteen million dollars.  A year later the British ambassador dropped off a check for the full amount with as little fanfare as possible.

Throughout 1861 and 1862 there was a real possibility the British would enter the war on the side of the Confederates, a development that would have radically shifted the balance of power.  The Union needed a way to make sure that would never happen and knew the best option.  They needed to make slavery an issue.

Slavery was the central conflict that brought about the Civil War but the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery.  At least not originally.  There were decades of political conflicts, Bleeding Kansas, and any number of other slavery-related issues that factored in to Southern secession.  The central reason for the South’s secession was slavery. It was right there in the Cornerstone Speech and prominently written into the Confederate Constitution and all of the Confederate states’ Constitutions. Lincoln’s aim at the outset of the war was to preserve the nation and he was pragmatic when it came to the institution of slavery.  It’s possible that if the war had ended in ninety days as some thought with a Northern victory the South would have been re-admitted to the Union with the peculiar institution intact.

It was the British who moved slavery from the outside to the center of the issue.  They were already acting against type in their desperation for cotton and uncomfortable with the idea.  Making the end of slavery a matter of policy wouldn’t end the British involvement with the South but it would almost certainly keep British involvement from expanding.

In 1862 Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was a strange document, as it didn’t actually immediately free any slaves.  There were no slaves to be freed in the North and the Proclamation specifically excluded those areas controlled by the North where there were slaves for fear of setting off riots.  The South, of course, wasn’t about to honor the document.

Still, it was the principle of the whole thing.  Following the Proclamation the Union Army marched forward under the banner of freedom.  If the British government tried to declare war on the Union in support of the Confederacy the PR would be a disaster.

What Lincoln needed was a victory.  Any victory would suffice. He just needed a high point so he could release his statement from a position of strength.  A little thing made that possible.

McClellan had in his hands Lee’s marching orders for his army.  The Army of Northern Virginia was split into three columns that were busy snaking their way into Maryland.  The Army of the Potomac was concentrated and in perfect position to take advantage of the Napoleonic central position.

There was another little thing getting in the way.  His name was George B. McClellan.  Numbers, position, and information were all on his side in spades but McClellan didn’t move.

Lee figured out his orders were compromised and did move.  He gathered his forces together at Sharpsburg and prepared to meet McClellan.

Even with the quick move to change his fortunes Lee entered the battle of Antietam outnumbered two-to-one.  McClellan, however, did not deploy all of his forces and the ones he did were used clumsily.

Joe Hooker struck Lee’s left flank and battered the Confederates.  Other forces repeatedly assaulted the Confederate center at the strong defensive position known as the Sunken Road.  Sheer weight of numbers eventually caused a break in the line that was never exploited.

In the afternoon Ambrose Burnside attempted to cross Antietam Creek well to the south of the main battle.  A small Confederate holding force kept him in place as his troops repeatedly attempted to cross a single bridge that went down in history as Burnside’s Bridge.[2]  By the time the Confederates ran out of ammo and Burnside finally figured out that there was a ford just a little downstream it was too late for him to have any impact on the battle.

After Antietam McClellan refused to follow up and engage Lee.  Lincoln eventually put Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac and he would be in charge at Fredericksburg a few months after Antietam.  Burnside would continue to show he was an inflexible, unimaginative commander and waste troops for two days in an ineffective assault against the heavily defended stone wall at the top of Marye’s Heights.  However his excellent facial hair would eventually give us the term sideburn, so he did have that going for him.

McClellan didn’t exactly win the Battle of Antietam, but he did something nearly as important.  He managed to not lose.  Admittedly with the balance of forces and tactical situation it was nearly impossible for him not to lose, but considering how good Union generals were at plucking defeat from the clutching jaws of victory at that point in the war McClellan deserves a minimal amound of praise for his good fortune.

Lee’s undersize army could no longer stay in Maryland after the Battle of Antietam.  He was forced to withdraw to Virginia and only made it because McClellan refused to do what victorious generals are supposed to do.  Had McClellan pinned Lee to the Rappahannock and defeated the Army of Northern Virginia in detail the Civil War might have ended two years earlier.

Still, even if Antietam was a tactical draw and a personal defeat for McClellan it was a strategic victory for the North in more ways than one.  Lee was no longer a menace to the North and his withdrawal gave Lincoln all the pretext he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  The call to preserve the Union was now the battle cry of freedom and England had been kept out of the war without firing a single shot.

Antietam had repercussions out west, too.  Bragg found out that Kentucky really wasn’t interested in being “liberated” by the South.  Don Carlos Buell was breathing down his neck with an army bolstered by reinforcements from Grant.  More troops were being gathered at Louisville and Columbus. In early September Rosecrans had defeated Price at the Battle of Iuka.

In short, nothing worked right for Bragg during the late summer and early fall of 1862.  The Confederate High Tide receded and Bragg found himself fighting a delaying action against an emboldened Rosecrans in command of the newly constituted Army of the Cumberland.  With Bragg distracted in Tennessee and most of the opposition in Mississippi quashed Grant was free to open operations against Vicksburg.

His only opposition was John A. McClernand.  Unfortunately McClernand was a Union general.  There was a garrison force at Vicksburg under John C. Pemberton.  There were cavalry raids from Nathan Bedford Forrest and Van Dorn.

The Confederates lacked the manpower to counter Grant in the field and McClernand did more to screw up the Vicksburg campaign than any Confederate general could have.  The debacle finally got Halleck on Grant’s side. That was to be an important alliance going forward.

Out east there was more stupidity and cases of the Union shooting itself in the foot.  Fightin’ Joe Hooker was about to get his chance to face the wrath of Lee at Chancellorsville.


[1]One of the interesting things about the Civil War was the naming conventions.  The Union tended to name things after rivers and the Confederacy tended to name things after geographic features.  This is how you could have the Army of the Tennessee deployed against the Army of Tennessee.  The only way to avoid confusion is to understand the naming conventions.  Of course this didn’t always work, as John Pope was commander of the short-lived Union Army of Virginia.

This is also why battles tend to have several names.  The Union called the battles of Bull Run after the tributary of the same name that wound through the battlefield.  The Confederacy referred to the same battles as First and Second Manassas after Manassas Junction.  Similarly the topic of today’s post was called Antietam in the North for Antietam Creek while in the South the battle was called Sharpsburg.  This, too, is not a hard and fast rule of nomenclature.  Fredericksburg and Gettysburg only have one name for example.

[2]When I was in juco this little fact taught me about what can happen when you contradict a professor.  I was taking an American history course with a teacher I really liked.  He claimed that Burnside’s attempted bridge crossing occurred at a different battle.  Fredericksburg, I think.  I raised my hand, said that it was Antietam.  The prof got mad at me.  I was a little surprised.

Four Days in July: Chancellorsville

After Antietam the initiative in the east was entirely on the Union’s side. September and October passed and McClellan wasted the opportunity. Lincoln was angry.

On October 8 Don Carlos Buell finally brought Braxton Bragg to battle at Perryville four days after Bragg and Kirby Smith’s attempt to install a Confederate Governor in Frankfort, Kentucky was interrupted by Union artillery fire. The day at Perryville was a tactical victory for Bragg but it didn’t matter. Buell’s Army of the Ohio outnumbered Bragg’s Army of Mississippi, which had not yet merged with Smith’s army to form the Army of Tennessee.  Bragg withdrew, which forced Smith to withdraw and ultimately resulted in the second loss of Kentucky to the Southern cause.

Buell followed Bragg with only slightly more verve than McClellan was pursuing Lee.  At the end of the month command of Buell’s Army of the Ohio was given to William Rosecrans and the command’s name was changed to the Army of the Cumberland.  Rosecrans had defeated Van Dorn at the Second Battle of Corinth on the same day Bragg and Smith were installing a Confederate government in Frankfort and was supposed to be more aggressive. He wasn’t.

With Rosecrans in Nashville and Grant preparing the initial stages of a move on Vicksburg all that was left was to get the Army of the Potomac moving again. Lincoln fired McClellan and legend has it the President said of his general, “He is an admirable engineer, but he seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine.”  Whether or not this is a true quote is open for debate.  It does, however, sum up McClellan as well as the words, “I cannot spare this man, he fights,” summed up Grant. In an inspection of the Army of the Potomac Lincoln also derisively referred to his premier army as “McClellan’s bodyguard.”

Ambrose Burnside was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac, an honor Burnside neither wanted nor felt he deserved.  As already mentioned, Burnside was an unimaginative general and his talents certainly lay in corps command instead of full army command.  He tried to invade Virginia in December and was repulsed at Fredericksburg.  There’s not much to learn from that battle, save the fact that attacking uphill against an enemy entrenched behind a stone wall is a bad idea.

Burnside tried again in January but got nowhere in the most literal possible sense.  Unseasonably warm weather and rain turned the roads to mud and his troops could barely get out of camp.  Burnside resigned his command and was ordered to take his old IX Corps west to Ohio.  Fighting Joe Hooker was the next through the revolving door that regularly deposited corps commanders in the top spot before they were booted off in ignominy after a new abysmal failure.

Hooker had a good reputation and was a fine judge of the shortcomings of his superiors.  He had nothing good to say about McClellan and openly mocked Burnside’s assault up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg.  Burnside tried to get Hooker court-martialed.  Lincoln promoted him to command of the Army of the Potomac.

Hooker was an interesting character.  He openly advocated for a Union dictator. Lincoln invited him to try for the position since only winning generals become dictators.  The word “brothel” was applied to his headquarters, which is how “hooker” became one of our synonyms for prostitute.  Burnside’s etymological legacy is for facial hair, Hooker’s for whores, further proof that the Civil War altered history forever in ways large and small.

Unfortunately for Joe Hooker the war continued unabated.  He was required to take the war to the Confederacy with the added burden of an already exasperated Lincoln watching his every move.  During the spring of 1863 it seemed that Hooker was the man for the job.  He re-equipped the army and was prepared to move aggressively against Lee.  He also had more resources than McClellan or Burnside and his opponent had not been able to replenish all his losses.

In addition, Hooker wasn’t afraid of bold action or engaging in battle with less than every single soldier he could find.  His goal was to pin Lee in place and outflank the Army of Northern Virginia.  In service of this plan he left about 30,000 troops at Fredericksburg under Sedgwick and looped to the north and west with a force of 70,000.  He crossed the Rapidan River and then…stopped.

It seems that Fighting Joe Hooker’s nerves had failed him.  He pulled up short at Chancellorsville at the edges of an area known as The Wilderness.  The forces under his direct command outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia and were moving to trap Lee against the Rappahannock, where the forces under Sedgwick would then be able to play the role of anvil to Hooker’s hammer.

But in the middle of his move Hooker surrendered the initiative and put his forces in to defensive position around Chancellorsville.  This did severe damage to his resume as a would-be dictator.

To be fair to Hooker, Lee wasn’t just waiting for the hammer to fall.  He left Jubal Early in Fredericksburg with enough troops to discourage the Federals from getting adventurous and took 45,000 troops to meet Hooker.  He also deployed JEB Stuart’s cavalry to control the roads and lines of communication.

Weather played a role in the developing battle.  Hooker’s plan relied on the re-organized Federal cavalry under George Stoneman raiding through Virginia and down towards Richmond.  Rains and swollen rivers largely kept them out of the fight.  It also meant that they weren’t in position to provide Hooker with data on Lee’s movements.

Lee had no such problems.  He knew where Hooker was and knew what he was preparing to do.  Already heavily outnumbered, Lee split his forces a second time and sent Jackson around the Union right with 26,000 of his 45,000 troops.

Oliver O. Howard was holding the Union right and doing a terrible job of it.  One of Napoleon’s military maxims was that a corps needed to anchor its flanks against some impassable terrain, lest the enemy get around its edges.  Napoleon’s maxim deserves a corollary: should there be no impassable cliffs or rivers handy, at least try to avoid anchoring your flank against a road screened by forests, then point a couple of field guns out to the side and call it a day.

Sadly, Oliver O. Howard neglected to consult with me before Chancellorsville.  When Jackson’s troops boiled out of the forest just before dusk on May 2 they caught Howard’s corps completely by surprise.  As the right flank routed the forces under Lee mounted a frontal assault and only the onset of night allowed the Union to stay in the field.

Even though Lee won convincingly on the field at Chancellorsville he lost his war that night.  Jackson went out to scout the Union lines after nightfall and was shot by his own picket on the way back.  Stonewall Jackson died a week later.

The people out in the battlefield making history matter as much as any gun or troop count.  When Lee lost Jackson he didn’t just lose a general or a corps commander.  He lost the single most irreplaceable person in his army.  Richard Ewell would take over Jackson’s troops, but would prove to be no Stonewall Jackson, much to the detriment of the Army of Northern Virginia.

War is a complicated business that often relies on timing and luck.  Commanders on the modern battlefield with radio communications, aerial observation, and satellite cameras can manufacture their own good timing to a certain extent.  The generals of the Civil War had no such advantages.  When Lee sent Jackson on his wild ride around the Union flank he effectively sent more than half his forces in to a black hole and hoped that his flank attack would materialize.

Those attacks didn’t always occur.  Compare Chancellorsville to Pope’s fruitless feints on Jackson’s left at Second Bull Run after Porter and McDowell didn’t attack the Confederate right.  Of course had Pope not been a terrible general and Longstreet not been approaching from his left the mistakes at Bull Run probably would not have cost the Army of Virginia too dearly.  Jackson’s end run at Chancellorsville could have cost Lee his army.

But Lee and Jackson had been working together since the Shenandoah Valley campaign of early 1862 and been a dangerous team ever since.  They knew and trusted each other and when working together could pull off the impossible on a regular basis.  The invincible Army of Northern Virginia didn’t die with Jackson on May 10, 1863 but it was severely wounded.

Lee’s war continued, however.  He had beat back McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.  But with each Union incursion in to Virginia irreplaceable Confederate supplies and manpower were lost while the Union troops withdrew, refit, and returned as strong as, if not stronger than, before.

Lee needed to do something and he decided that the key to the war lay in Pennsylvania.

The stage was now set for Gettysburg.

Four Days in July: The Anaconda Plan

Every war needs a plan.  No commander can go to war with no end game in sight and expect a positive outcome.  The plan cannot simply be, “Meet the enemy in the field and kick their butts,” either.

The commander of the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War was Old Fuss & Feathers himself, Winfield Scott.  He was far too old for a field command but still had a strong grasp of the strategic situation.  He realized that what the Union needed to do was slowly strangle the Confederacy by starting at the edges and working in.  His plan was derisively dubbed the Anaconda Plan and almost immediately abandoned by his successors in favor of planning for decisive battles of annihilation and a march on Richmond.

This would have been a fantastic except for one problem.  His immediate successor as commander of the Union Armies was George B. McClellan.  Yes, that George B. McClellan, the one who couldn’t be convinced to engage in battle unless Lincoln set his ass on fire and pointed him in the general direction of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, Henry Halleck ended up in charge in the west and didn’t really bother to do much of anything on the Mississippi River, instead deciding that the Tennessee was the river of strategic importance. This was a baffling decision.  The Anaconda Plan would have actually taken care of the whole Tennessee River fairly quickly.

The northern border of the Confederacy, at least in scenarios where Kentucky is part of the Confederacy, was the Ohio River.  The Ohio feeds in to the Mississippi at the southern tip of Illinois, which is why Grant’s position in Cairo, Illinois was so strategically important at the outset of the war, since Cairo is the southern-most city in Illinois.

The Mississippi, then, was effectively the western border of the Confederacy.  Most of Louisiana and all of Arkansas and Texas are west of the Mississippi and Missouri was a battleground at various points but most of the war took place between the Mississippi and the Atlantic.  This is why the Anaconda Plan went up the Mississippi and over to the Ohio.

The Tennessee, meanwhile, feeds in to the Cumberland, which then feeds in to the Ohio from the south and east.  The join occurs just a bit east of Cairo.  It therefore stands to reason that any moves east from the Mississippi and south from the Ohio would quickly take away the Tennessee as an operational area from the Confederacy.

Halleck apparently didn’t see the wisdom in this and basically abandoned the Mississippi.  Fortunately for him the Navy was there to pick up the slack in the early part of the war.  Lincoln declared a blockade on the entire Confederate coastline from the beginning of hostilities.  This put New Orleans in the Navy’s operational area.

The blockade itself was problematic.  From Texas to Virginia the Confederate coastline was some three thousand miles long and dotted with tiny inlets and river mouths.  To put the whole thing in perspective the Confederate coastline was longer than the entire European Atlantic coast.  This was a huge undertaking.  Adding to the degree of difficulty was the fact that the U.S. Navy had very few ships at the outset of the war and there were almost no warships capable of navigating the thousands of miles of inland rivers.

To put things in perspective, the British effectively blockaded Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.  Their blockade assisted by the fact that Napoleon’s Continental System intended to keep Europe a self-contained area.  The British really only had to stop Napoleon’s warships from concentrating into a large enough force to sweep aside the British Navy and cross the English Channel.  This, too, was greatly helped by Napoleon, since he did not understand naval warfare, did not put the necessary resources in to keeping up his warships, and had a navy built as a coalition of French, Spanish and, briefly, Dutch warships.  The British took the Dutch out of the fight quickly and the Spanish hated the French far more than the British.  The Spanish largely celebrated the British victory at Trafalgar.

The only overseas merchant marine that could have really made the British blockade an issue was from America. America was mostly on the side of the British from the Jay Treaty of 1794 until the lead-up to the War of 1812.  By then it was far too late, anyway.  The French also didn’t help their own cause with the XYZ Affair, but that’s a story for another day.

The situation at the outset of the Civil War was far different from Europe seven decades earlier.  The U.S. Navy was fairly weak, it suddenly lost several of its bases and, in the process, warships (the Merrimac being the most famous example), the South absolutely needed to get its supplies from outside forces, and Britain and France each had a vested interest in keeping trade open with the Confederacy.  An effective blockade, then would be of paramount importance to the north while keeping the coastline open would be of equal importance to the south.

It was readily apparent to the Navy that New Orleans was key to the entire process.  There were two problems.  First, the mouth of the Mississippi was defended by two redoubts named Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson that would not go down easy.  Second, the abandonment of the Anaconda Plan meant that the Navy would have to get to New Orleans from the south.  There was no Union column marching down the Mississippi River like Winfield Scott had planned.

On the night of April 24, 1862 a fleet under David Farragut ran the guns of St. Philip and Jackson.  Farragut had an interesting but fairly common biography for the Civil War.  He was a Tennesseean with family ties in Louisiana and Virginia and a service record in the U.S. Navy that went back to the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.  The Navy didn’t trust his loyalty at the outset of the war, which required Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to personally intervene on his behalf and get him a command.

He started the war commanding a desk in Washington and ended up going down in history.  We remember Farragut for his battle cry, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”  That was at the Battle of Mobile Bay, about two and a half years after New Orleans.  Still, Farragut was responsible for the victories in two of the most important naval battles of the Civil War. Not bad for a man rejected as a probable traitor.

Of course Farragut probably didn’t say his famous words, but, really, who’s counting?

Either way, with New Orleans in the hands of the Union the Mississippi was no longer a valid supply line for the Confederacy.  The Mississippi still dominated the strategic situation in the west even if Henry Halleck wasn’t inclined to believe it.  The Union couldn’t use the Mississippi because there was still a major Confederate stronghold on the river: Vicksburg.

The Confederates recognized the importance of Vicksburg early on and spent 1861, 1862, and 1863 fortifying the city.  When Grant finally started moving towards the city at the end of 1862 Confederate cavalry under Generals Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest did everything in their power to disrupt Grant’s movements and hit his supply lines.

Grant’s biggest problem wasn’t the Confederate cavalry. It was a Union General named John A. McClernand.

McClernand was one of those curious breed in the Union known as a War Democrat.  There were few Democrats in the Union and most of them were Copperheads.[1]  War Democrats had a disproportionately large influence.  It’s why Andrew Johnson, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee who was the only Southerner who stayed on in Washington ended up as the Vice President and then the President of the United States.

McClernand thought he should be the one to take Vicksburg.  He put forward a plan in Washington to recruit an army in Illinois and move south down the Mississippi.  Henry Halleck didn’t like the plan, but lacked the political clout to put it to a stop.

He instead informed Grant that something was going on. Separated as he was from Washington and holding Halleck’s old position as a Department Commander, Grant could take over McClernand’s force without getting in trouble.

This did mean that Grant was forced to abandon his march from central Mississippi and cross to the west side of the Mississippi River.  Rather than a relatively quick overland march, Grant would be forced to operate along the river. His operations suddenly got difficult.


[1]For the record, nicknames for political groups are terrible anymore.  There were great ones in the 1800s, like the Copperheads, the Stalwarts, the Know Nothings, and the Mugwumps (because they had their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other).  Now we have, what, the neo-cons?  That’s just boring.

Four Days in July: Gettysburg Day 1

The Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t supposed to happen.

Lee’s goal in his Pennsylvania campaign wasn’t a decisive battle in a sleepy little town no one had ever heard of before.  He wanted to hit Harrisburg or even Philadelphia.  If he could get to one of those cities he might turn the Union against the war.

In war, as they say, the best laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy.  And so it happened that Lee’s best laid plans were quashed in a little town that would give its name to history.  It was a point of convergence; the place where the aura of invincibility that followed the Army of Northern Virginia was shattered and the Army of the Potomac found its backbone.  It all started because of one thing.


After Chancellorsville, Lee realized he needed to take some of the pressure of the war off of northern Virginia’s shoulders.  He slipped down the Shenandoah Valley with some 70,000 men and headed for the heartlands of Pennsylvania.  Joe Hooker refused to follow at first, and instead offered a plan to march on Richmond and force Lee to return.  Lincoln rejected it and ordered Hooker to follow Lee to Pennsylvania.

Throughout June the two armies snaked their way towards Harrisburg.  On June 28 Hooker got in to an argument with Lincoln and offered his resignation in what has always been assumed a gambit.  Lincoln promptly accepted and offered the job to John Reynolds, who turned it down.  Command of the Union Army fell to V Corps commander George Meade.  Three days before the accidental battle at Gettysburg the Army of the Potomac had a new commander who knew practically nothing about the disposition of the Union forces.

Events transpired to make things difficult for Lee, too.  He had detached most of his cavalry from the army under JEB Stuart, a prototypically flashy cavalry officer who was as interested making a reputation as he was in winning battles.  As so often happens, the former motivation hurt the latter and Stuart abandoned, for all intents and purposes, the Army of Northern Virginia in an attempt to circumnavigate the entire Army of the Potomac.  He’s now mostly remembered not as a dashing cavalry commander, but as the general who allowed his army to stumble blindly in to the biggest battle of the Civil War.

The Union cavalry was on the ball.  General John Buford rode in to Gettysburg at the head of a cavalry division on June 30 and had intermittent contact with a Confederate force under Pettigrew but did not engage.  Buford decided that the terrain around Gettysburg was some of the best he’d seen for a battle and sent word to General John Reynolds and I Corps.

Pettigrew was not supposed to be in Gettysburg on June 30th. His men, unaware of their proximity to the Union van, were on a scavenging mission. Confederate supply lines were breaking down at that point in the war and the soldiers often lacked shoes. Pettigrew’s men saw Gettysburg as a place to find some decent footwear. As so often happens in war the biggest moment turned on a comparatively small thing.

Lee was amassing his forces a few miles up the road in Cashtown.  Jackson’s old command had been parceled out to two new corps under A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell.  At the end of June, Ewell was in the van and had nearly reached Harrisburg while Hill was close to Cashtown and Longstreet was about a day’s march behind in Chambersburg.  The initial attack engagement would fall to Hill from the northwest and Ewell from the north.

On the morning of July 1 Heth’s Division of A.P. Hill’s Corps headed down the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg for a reconnaissance in force.  Buford’s cavalry was dismounted and arrayed along the ridges to the west of town.  The cavalrymen were heavily outnumbered but did have one advantage.  They were armed with single shot, breech loading Sharps carbines, a favorite of the mounted forces on both sides of the war.  The Sharps could fire eight or nine rounds per minute, compared to the three rounds that the best trained users of the muzzle loading infantry muskets could fire.

Buford had no real choice other than to trade ground for time.  He engaged in what is known as “defense in depth” fighting, a rolling retreat under fire, the sort of tactic pioneered by Gustavus Adolphus.  A bit after ten the first elements of I Corps appeared on the field in the form of the famous Iron Brigade and managed to surround and capture a good chunk of Archer’s Brigade of Heth’s Division, including General Archer himself.

There would be no time for rest.  John Reynolds was shot shortly after he appeared on the battlefield to assess the defenses and Abner Doubleday (who is, probably erroneously, best known for inventing the modern game of baseball in a cow patch in Cooperstown, NY) took over.  The I Corps was still heavily outnumbered and things were about to get worse.

Heth’s Division was getting reinforcements.  Pettigrew and Brockenbrough’s Brigades were arriving in the field along with another of Hill’s divisions under William Dorsey Pender.  Ewell’s Corps was approaching from the north at the same time.  Oliver O. Howard’s newly arrived Union XI Corps was forced to race up the Taneytown Road, which ran south from Gettysburg along Cemetary Ridge, and up through town in order to hold the line and keep Ewell from outflanking I Corps from the right.

Howard left a brigade under Adolph Steinwehr on the high ground of Cemetery Hill to act as a reserve.  This would prove fortuitous as the afternoon wore on.

The terrain south of Gettysburg is practically tailor-made for a battle.  Cemetery Ridge forms a sort of fishhook, with the rounded, bottom part of the hook facing the city and the point anchored by Cemetery Hill to the east.  The shaft of the fishhook then runs straight south with the heights topped by a low, brick wall.  South of the Ridge the high ground gives way to a relatively flat area known as the Wheat Field that is fronted to the west by the Peach Orchard.  Further south the hills known as Little Round Top and Round Top rise, covered to the east by a field of boulders called Devil’s Den.

For any force that found itself, as the Army of the Potomac did on July 1, 1863, on the field of Gettysburg and attacked by a larger force from the north and west, the battlefield at Gettysburg defined itself.  As the Union forces collapsed throughout the afternoon of July 1, they naturally converged on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill.  The fact that the battlefield defined the Union lines also meant that it defined the Confederate objectives.

This was where the loss of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville came back to haunt Robert E. Lee.  He issued an order to Richard Ewell commanding him to take Cemetery Hill if it was possible.  Jackson probably would not have taken this order as a suggestion.  He would have seen Cemetery Hill’s position as absolutely key to the battlefield, assessed the flagging Union defense north of Gettysburg, and done everything in his power to take Cemetery Hill.  Ewell chose to conclude that the assault was not practicable.  The Confederates lost their best chance to win at Gettysburg when Ewell made that choice.

Meade’s subordinates, meanwhile, did not fail him.  Howard agreed with Buford’s assessment that the land was good for a fight.  When Winfield Scott Hancock, Meade’s most trusted subordinate, arrived at a crucial point he, too, agreed and set about making sure the retreating Union forces took their places along the north side of Cemetery Ridge.

Ewell did have a subordinate aggressive enough to take the high ground.  Isaac Trimble, who had fought under Jackson at Cross Keys and through every engagement until he was wounded at Second Bull Run, was under Ewell’s command but had no troops under his direct command.  He noticed that off to the east of Cemetery Hill another rise, Culp’s Hill, was vacant and in perfect position to dominate Cemetery Hill and keep the Union from anchoring their right flank.

Trimble didn’t get the troops he needed to take Culp’s Hill.  In his papers Trimble claimed that Ewell said he had no orders to engage. Throughout 1861 and 1862 men like Stonewall Jackson and Isaac Trimble propelled the Army of Northern Virginia to greatness. At Gettysburg this failure of audacity probably cost Lee the battle.

Day 1 at Gettysburg was a story of uncharacteristic failure on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia and uncharacteristic success on the part of the Army of the Potomac.  Stuart failed to play the role cavalry was supposed to play.  Ewell failed to exploit the Union retreat.  At the same time John Buford proved the Union cavalry was far better than anyone had suspected up until that point.  John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock fought more aggressively than expected and held their ground and managed to keep organized in a rearguard all day against superior forces.  Oliver O. Howard managed to make up for his failure to hold the right flank at Chancellorsville.

So Day 1 at Gettysburg passed in to Day 2.  The Union commanded the high ground at Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, and Culp’s Hill.

But now Longstreet was in the field.  Lafayette McLaws’ Division and John Bell Hood’s Division were on the Confederate right prepared to assault through the Wheatfield and the Round Tops.  If they could take the hills they’d be able to roll up the Union left flank.

The fight was far from over.