“Sweet merciful crap!”

Well, okay, maybe the subject of this post isn’t THAT serious – but I always wanted to title one after one of my favorite Homer Simpson lines.  This seemed to be a good time.

Eric and I continue to pound the research pavement as we finish up the manuscript for the Gettysburg retreat book, and good stuff is continually flowing in.  One resource I snagged online today was the published papers of the Delaware Historical Society.  In 1884, Capt. William Seville of the 1st DE Infantry submitted a paper on his regiment’s role during the campaign, and one of his statements really jumped out at me.

By way of background, many folks characterize Army of the Potomac commander George Meade’s pursuit of Lee after the battle as slow.  Evidence shows, though, that by July 13 and 14 he wanted to make an attack on Lee’s semi-circular defensive position along the river between Williamsport and Falling Waters.  A war council called by Meade put the kibosh on attack plans, with only a couple of his commanders in favor of an attack at the time.  Meade decided to wait, and of course by the morning of July 14 most of Lee’s army had already crossed over the river at those two points.

No one has ever found any evidence of an actual attack order issued by Meade (certainly not that any tangible military plans were put into effect) – just that he and many of the soldiers desired an attack, and he based his decision on the results of the council vote.  Today, as I read through Seville’s recollections, I read this assertion that he makes for July 13:

“About ten o’clock at night an order was received directing a general charge on the rebel works at daylight in the morning [July 14], in which no other weapon was to be used than the bayonet; the men being required to take out of their cartridge-boxes all the ammunition and turn it in.  This order was countermanded just before daylight, in all respects excepting that in regard to marching.”

Seville then recounts that the troops moved forward on the 14th and discovered the Confederates gone from their earthworks and over the river.

It’s a wonderful tidbit, and perhaps leads to many more questions than it answers.  Besides the question of whether the order was actually issued – where did it come from?  Certainly no regimental, brigade, or even division commander would issue such an order unless there was something official coming down the food chain regarding a planned attack.  Slocum was the corps commander – would it have been him?  But he wasn’t in favor of an attack.  Did Meade issue some type of order prior to the war council, then countermand it based on the vote results?  And the idea of a general advance of the army, using only bayonets – ordered to turn in all their ammunition in fact – implies something much more serious than just a “get ready to charge” situation.  It’s also the first time I’ve heard of this type of order.

It would be desirable to corroborate this statement – if only some other soldier in some other regiment had made the same assertion, but we’ve found none.  And we’ve perused nearly 100 regimental histories, and hundreds of primary and secondary sources.  If we could corroborate the statement, it would show that Meade had more in motion than just a “desire” to attack Lee during those final hours, and that perhaps he planned to do so either without calling a war council, or in spite of it.  At this point, we just don’t know.

And the question remains – what to do with such a statement and its ramifications for the story?  We can work it into the main text of the narrative (and perhaps our Conclusion chapter as well), but it would have to be in context with the fact that it’s uncorroborated.  A caveat of sorts.  Or, it can be mentioned somewhere in a related footnote.  We’re just not sure at this point whether it’s important enough to be in the text.  Is it bad memory, or an earth-shaking indication that more wheels were in motion to attack Lee’s formidable defenses than we’ve been led to believe?

We’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on the matter…

Published in: on August 20, 2007 at 4:32 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. My question is related to your project but not to today’s post. I’m finishing Brown’s Retreat from Gettysburg, and a couple of questions occurred to me during my reading that I hope you’ll address in your book. First, why did Lee immediately decide on a retreat to Virginia apparently on the evening of July 3? Didn’t he have a viable option to continue in PA longer, with a defensive line along South Mtn shielding more extensive foraging behind? Meade thought Lee might do that, and this was more or less what he and Longstreet had discussed doing before the unplanned battle took place at Gettysburg. Why didn’t he opt for this after Gettysburg, when the invasion as a big foraging expedition was Lee’s own statement of its purpose? Was the main motivation for immediate retreat the desire to evacuate the wounded to more permanent medical facilities quickly, rather than for more strategic reasons?

    We learn a lot about micro-logistics from Brown, but I’m still wanting to see more of the big picture of logistics, which leads to a second question. Since we might judge its success in one dimension on the logistical gains, how long did the supplies gathered from the campaign last Lee’s army?

    Third, Brown touches briefly on how Meade’s operational alternatives were limited by the remoteness of his supplies to Gettysburg and the need to move his base from Westminster to Frederick, in order to effectively confront Lee at Williamsport. Will you examine the role of Rufus Ingalls and the impact of transportation and supply on the strategic and operational decision making of Meade after Gettysburg in greater depth, including the impact of Washington on these issues (Halleck, Meigs)? This all reminds me of the aftermath of Antietam – I’m sure it does you as well – only the Administration didn’t fire their successful general this time.

  2. Bob,

    Fantastic questions and observations – and what you point out here is also another reason why we decided to tackle this issue. You’ve raised two of the most important questions that our study must explore and attempt to answer – first, the obvious… why Meade conducted his pursuit as he did; and second, why did Lee see the immediacy of retreat in the first place?

    We explore both of these in detail in the book (on to your final points in a moment). As for why Lee retreated immediately, you’ve hit on the answers. We don’t believe it was viable for Lee to remain in PA any longer – the length of such a stay depended solely on supplies. An army has to eat. What the ANV gathered, we’ve determined, didn’t last much beyond the battle. We’ve uncovered too many accounts of the lack of food and provisions by July 4, in spite of all they had gathered. Next, with Meade’s army concentrated, Lee was in too much danger of being cut off from his retreat lines should he attempt to hold out along South Mountain – and the fact that Pleasonton didn’t take advantage of that necessary strategy was also an enormous factor in why Lee was ultimately able to escape anyway. Instead of having a cohesive force among his 3 cavalry divisions block Lee’s rear, Pleasonton scattered them to the winds – and one division, Gregg’s, hardly played a factor in the retreat at all. Virtually none. Thousands of veteran horse soldiers completely wasted.

    Another factor was indeed the evacuation of the wounded. Lee made the statement that “as many of our poor wounded as possible must be taken home.” Besides the several thousand Union prisoners taken along with them, Lee had those ambulatory wounded that he desired to get back to Virginia, where hospitals were already being set up while he retreated. Maj. John Alexander Harman, Ewell’s quartermaster (and the one who engineered Lee’s withdrawal following Antietam) was the perfect man for the job, and he did yeoman’s work at Williamsport.

    Your final points about Ingalls, Halleck, etc. deserve exploration perhaps even beyond the very detailed Conclusion we’ve written – I’m glad you brought this point up. We definitely have a lot of discussion regarding Meade’s supply base (Meade’s logistics during the retreat are every bit as important as those of Lee, and I think folks often forget or don’t recognize that) and how it drove his army’s movements and decisions. The plethora of recollections we have from soldiers commenting that July 5/6 were the first times they had something decent to eat in several days bear that out. It’s all part and parcel of that broad element of logistics (that you correctly point out) that Civil War armies were absolutely dependant on.

    And that point, also, drove our desire to do this book. One can get bogged down in a micro-discussion of logistics, while losing the forest for the trees. Eric, Mike and I truly feel that the story of Lee’s retreat is a story of the movements and fighting, driven by the logistics – not the other way around. And I think that’s true with just about every similar situation during the war. Since the fights and movements haven’t been told in such detail yet (including Brown’s book) we knew that story was waiting to be written – especially in our case since each involved cavalry 🙂 The story of the logistics – again, in BOTH Lee’s and Meade’s case – drives what unfolds each day.

    You’ve given us some more food for thought, especially regarding our Conclusion. We still have about 3-4 weeks before it get turned in to Savas, so we’re still working on it.

    Stay tuned, and give us your further thoughts if you think of anything.


  3. Thanks very much. One follow up – if as you say Lee’s army had a lack of food and supplies by July 4, was it because the grand supply raid wasn’t as successful as was hoped or was it because a vast amount of supplies were obtained but were not being issued and instead were being staged for shipment south. The latter is the impression one gets from Brown. In my mind these questions help assess to what degree the campaign might be viewed as a Confederate success, despite the tactical defeat at Gettysburg. I don’t know if that’s beyond your scope, but it seems to me that the retreat analysis is bound up with logistics, and that might take you back to a review of the initial objectives of the campaign and whether they had been met when Lee recrossed the Potomac.

    I appreciate your considering my questions and look forward to the book. Before reading Brown, I just read Plenty of Blame and really enjoyed it. You guys are definitely adding new insights and original analysis and thinking to the old routine Gettysburg story.

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