Conclusion of a series.
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
After examining the evidence, it seems clear that Senator Wade’s inflammatory and defamatory statements about Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia were simply incorrect. Given the circumstances under which he was forced to operate, the army commander did everything possible. His army had suffered massive losses, had lost its three most aggressive corps commanders, was saddled by constraining operating orders, faced severe logistical challenges, and then had to confront an incredibly strong defensive position under the command of one of the greatest military minds ever born in the North American continent.
“When Lee retreated to the river he selected a splendid position and fortified it strongly,” wisely noted Capt. I. P. Powell of the 146th New York of the V Corps in August 1863. “Soon the two armies were opposite each other…[Lee] had by far the strongest position. To have been defeated would have to lose more, by far, than we had gained. The possibility of such a disaster must not be allowed for a moment. The only course, therefore, was to act on the defensive and wait till a portion of the enemy had crossed the enemy before we attacked him.” Powell concluded, “But it was impossible to tell when this happened. They escaped from us as we had frequently escaped from them. The retreat was in the night and during a heavy rain storm, when it would have been absolutely impossible to have followed them had we known they were going. Gen. Meade acted as any wise General should have.”
“Meade, no doubt, felt a little like a person often does in pitching quoits,” observed Sgt. Charles A. Frey of the 150th Pennsylvania. “If he makes a ‘ringer’ the first throw, rather than try to make two, and perhaps spoil both, he will throw a cowardly quoit. Meade had made a ‘ringer’ at Gettysburg and the country applauded. Had he made another on the banks of the Potomac, he would have been the greatest general of the war. Had he failed in the second attempt, he would have been denounced the world over.”
Could Meade have done more? Perhaps. Perhaps he could have ordered the army to pursue Lee sooner than he did. But once the army was put in motion, it moved with alacrity and got into position as quickly as possible under some of the worst possible conditions imaginable for the rapid or efficient movement of a large body of men. However, the more important question is whether the men could have done more. “Our troops require rest, shoes, and clothing,” observed Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, who commanded a division of the XII Corps, on July 16. “They have been some five weeks on the march. None but veteran troops could stand it, especially as we have not had a dry day for nearly three weeks. It is pouring down in torrents today, but I think the Army of the Potomac is simmered down to the very sublimation of human strength and endurance.” Men and animals were at the limits of their endurance, and it simply was not reasonable to expect any more of them than they had already sacrificed. Hence, the stars were aligned against George Gordon Meade, and he made the only choice that he could have made under the circumstances.
It is simple enough for an armchair quarterback with no understanding of the vicissitudes of command and with an obviously biased agenda like Ben Wade to level criticisms against Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. However, the burden of command weighs heavy, and only those who actually are tasked with making the life and death decisions—rather than criticizing them after the fact—can truly understand the dilemma faced by George Gordon Meade as he looked across the fields at Lee’s defensive position at Williamsport. With all of the factors stacked up against him, Meade made the only decisions that made any sense, and then the fates robbed him of his opportunity to fight a decisive battle on the banks of the Potomac River. With the benefit of full knowledge, it seems difficult indeed to criticize either the decisions made by Meade, or his conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.Scridb filter
Part five in a series
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
In the previous installment, we examined George Gordon Meade’s decision to defer an all-out assault along the lines at Williamsport for a day, instead of following his own aggressive instincts. Instead, he listened to the opinions of a majority of his subordinates, who cautioned against the attack. Not to be deterred, Meade ordered an all-out assault for July 14. However, when that all-out assault kicked off, the Army of the Potomac discovered that the Confederate army was gone, having retreated across the Potomac River. In this installment we will examine the question of whether that all-out assault might have succeeded had Meade launched it on July 13 instead. Unlike Sen. Benjamin Wade’s declaration in the report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, the success of such an assault was no sure thing.
Initially, and unlike the devastating losses sustained at Chancellorsville, the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia was largely intact after Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, one corps commander was mortally wounded, and a future corps commander was also wounded in the same volley of friendly fire. While there had been losses at the brigade and even divisional levels at Gettysburg, those losses paled in comparison to the losses that devastated Lee’s army two months earlier. Thus, Lee’s army was in good shape to receive an assault if one was launched.
As pointed out in the last installment of this series, Lee’s quartermasters did a superb job of re-supplying the army under difficult circumstances. One of the reasons why Lee decided to withdraw from the field at Gettysburg on the night of July 3 was because he was nearly out of artillery ammunition. Thanks to the constant running of Lemon’s Ferry at Williamsport, by July 13, the Army of Northern Virginia had been fully re-supplied with ammunition and was logistically prepared to receive an assault by the Army of the Potomac.
Confederate morale remained high, even after the devastating defeat at Gettysburg. Lee’s soldiers remained in good spirits and did not believe that their defeat in Pennsylvania was a crippling blow. The rank and file knew and understood that they were in a difficult situation with their backs up against a flooded river and with no route of retreat. They would have to stand and fight where they were. Robert E. Lee did all that he could to encourage his men. On June 11, he issued the following general order to his army: “Once more you are called up to meet the army from which you have won on so many fields a name that will never die,” he proclaimed. “Once more the eyes of your countrymen are turned upon you, and again do wives and sisters, fathers, mothers, and helpless children lean for defense on your strong arm and brave heart. Let every soldier remember that on his courage and fidelity depends all that makes life worth having—the freedom of his country, the honor of his people, and the security of his home.” He concluded with a flourish: “Soldiers! Your old enemy is before you! Win from him honors worthy of your righteous cause—worthy of your comrades dead on so many illustrious fields.” The stakes were indeed that high.
The men of the Army of Northern Virginia were already confident of their success. “As we got things into shape, oh! How we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open & attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg,” declared Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, who was the chief of artillery for Longstreet’s First Corps. “Our troops are drawn up in a line of battle on a splendid range of hills,” declared a supremely confident Virginia artillerist, “and as we have received a large supply of ammunition, I think we will give the enemy a big whipping, notwithstanding the large superiority of their numbers. Everything seems to indicate a large battle in which it is necessary that we should prove victorious, as our rations are running low with but little chance of getting more, until we take them from the enemy.” Make no mistake about it: the Army of Northern Virginia was just as full of fighting spirit as it had ever been, and it was itching for Meade to attack it in such a dominating defensive position.
Most importantly, the defensive position chosen and developed by Lee and his engineers was formidable. It ran along Salisbury Ridge, a prominent north-south ridge, and was anchored on the banks of the Potomac River on either end, meaning that it could not be flanked. While there were some low spots where creeks or marshy ground lay, the Confederate engineering staff built in interlocking fields of fire to ensure that these positions were defensible. The position featured a compact line of battle, with a complete road network with lines of retreat, supply, and communication behind it that allowed resources to be shifted to meet threats. The line bristled with artillery. In short, this strong defensive position made the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg look like a speed bump.
Indeed, the men of the Army of the Potomac remembered the debacle at Fredericksburg seven months earlier, and they had little stomach for a repeat, or to attack such a strong position anchored on commanding high ground. “It was thought not to risk a battle here as we have not over 50,000 efficient troops and the enemy to be equal to that if not more, with advantage of position and troops concentrated,” said a Union signalman. Nevertheless, Meade was confident. Normally reticent around reporters, he was positively giddy on the 13th. “We shall have a great battle tomorrow,” he declared to a reporter. “The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.”
Despite their commander’s confidence, the men in the ranks who would have to make that assault had every reason to be concerned. The Confederate defensive position was formidable. Referring to the long line of earthworks in front of them, Col. Charles Wainwright, the chief of artillery for the I Corps, said, “These were by far the strongest I have seen yet, evidently laid out by engineers and built as if they meant to stand a month’s siege.” The parapets were nearly six feet wide on top, and the engineers had placed their guns perfectly to create converging fields of fire that could sweep the entire front of the position. After inspecting the position, Wainwright concluded, “My own opinion is under the circumstances and with the knowledge General Meade then had he was justified in putting off the attack.”
Meade’s new chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, who had spent thirty years as a topographical engineer and knew a strong position when he saw one, declared, “Wherever seen, the position was naturally strong, and was perfectly entrenched. It presented no vulnerable points, but much of it was concealed from view…its flanks were secure and could not be turned.” He concluded, “A careful survey of the entrenched position of the enemy was made, and showed that an assault upon it would have resulted disastrously to us.” He also observed, “On the other hand, General Burnside was severely criticized for attacking at Fredericksburg, where the entrenchments were not as formidable than those at Williamsport.”
Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, the Army of the Potomac’s highly respected chief of artillery, echoed a similar note. “A careful survey of the enemy’s entrenched line after it was abandoned justified the opinion of the corps commanders against the attack, as it showed that an assault would have been disastrous to us. It proved also that Meade in overriding their opinion did not shrink from a great responsibility, notwithstanding his own recent experience at Gettysburg where all the enemy’s attacks on even partially entrenched lines had failed. If he erred on this occasion it was on the side of temerity.”
Finally, it must be noted that by the time of the American Civil War, it was all but impossible to destroy an enemy army in battle. The armies were too large, and there were too many factors that prevented such a thing. The reality is that there is not a single instance during the entire duration of the Civil War where an enemy army was destroyed on the field of battle. Armies were compelled to surrender, such as at Vicksburg and at Appomattox, but there was not a single instance of an army being left combat ineffective as a consequence of being defeated in battle during the Civil War. Expecting otherwise simply was not reasonable under any circumstances. The suggestions that an army as well led as Lee’s would be destroyed in battle are completely unsupported by the historic record and would not have happened under any circumstances.
The men in the ranks knew and understood this. “To the unbiased mind it is food for thought, if not for argument, when one remembers the fact, that it took one year and nine months afterwards, with all the resources of an immense army, under Grant, and his lieutenants, Sheridan and Meade, to ‘bag’ the same General Lee and his fighting veterans,” observed Sgt. Daniel G. McNamara of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. “Even then, if it had not been for Sheridan’s ceaseless activity, Lee and his army would have escaped and gone to North Carolina and joined Johnston’s forces.”
A Pennsylvanian echoed a similar sentiment. “Certainly 50,000 veteran soldiers are not easily captured when prepared for an attack,” he correctly observed, “as that army was at [Williamsport], especially under such a leader as General Lee, and the line of retreat well secured.” He pointed out that a successful blow “can only be supposition; and that supposition, may be, that Meade’s army would have hurled back to Baltimore or Washington by the recoil of the blow.”
Thus, there were absolutely no guarantees that an assault on July 13 would have accomplished much of anything. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Army of the Potomac could have suffered a catastrophic defeat along the lines of the one that it suffered at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Such a defeat would have negated everything that Meade accomplished by defeating Lee at Gettysburg AND the Confederate army still would have escaped. Senator Wade’s claim that the Army of Northern Virginia would have been destroyed on the banks of the Potomac River simply is unsupported by the evidence.Scridb filter
Part four in a series.
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
In part three of this series, we examined the question of how George G. Meade’s operational orders and the logistical challenges forged by the atrocious weather affected the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this part, we will examine the question of whether Meade should have attacked Lee’s positions around Williamsport earlier than the general advance that he ordered for the morning of July 14. When that advance finally occurred, the stout Confederate defenses were empty, with the bulk of Lee’s army having already made it to safety across the Potomac River.
Logistics continued to be a problem. “Our government was putting forth Herculean efforts to crush Lee’s army before the river fell,” quite correctly observed a New York infantryman, “but in great movements there are always some delays.” Nevertheless, by July 11, the Army of the Potomac had taken position opposite the Army of Northern Virginia. The situation was the direct opposite of what had occurred at Gettysburg: this time, Lee had the interior line with a supporting road network and good lines of communication and supply that was anchored on high ground, while the Union army had a longer, more attenuated line opposite it. Lee’s engineers had chosen their position wisely, and his men had had four full days to dig in and construct stout defenses. “The idea of fighting with a left flank sticking in the air & an unfordable river behind us was unpleasing in the extreme until indeed we got our works built,” recounted one of Lee’s men, “& then we were ready and confident.”
The Union position was nowhere near as strong or as appealing as that of the Confederates. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, the commander of the XII Corps, did not like his position one bit, describing it as “utterly untenable.” Slocum could see the construction work going on across the way, and he realized that the Army of Northern Virginia was building a stout position for itself. The Union line extended from Hagerstown (an attack by George A. Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade and the XI Corps on July 12 cleared the last Confederate forces out of Hagerstown that day) to the north all the way to the southern end of the old Antietam battlefield several miles away. The Union line was long and somewhat attenuated, and there was a fairly deep valley of no-man’s land between the Confederate position and the Union position. Although the Army of the Potomac’s position was on high ground, the Confederate position was much stronger and had shorter, interior lines.
The problem was that Meade had no idea what the Confederate position looked like. Nobody knew how long it was, and nobody knew how strong it was. J.E.B. Stuart’s dauntless Confederate cavalry had done a magnificent job of keeping the active and diligent troopers of Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s cavalry divisions from coming anywhere near it by taking the fight to the Union horse soldiers and keeping them tied up by constantly attacking them until the defensive position was ready and Lee ordered Stuart to take up a position on his flank, inviting an attack by Meade. Consequently, nobody in the Army of the Potomac’s high command had any real concept of what to expect. “Now we have Meade where we want him,” declared a Confederate officer. “If he attacks us here we will pay him back for Gettysburg. But the old fox is too cunning. He waits for our attack; but we surely will not make the same blunder twice.”
“Attacking a defensive position is like a climb,” observed Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the commander-in-chief of the French armies during World War I, “in which the details have to be studied and carefully anticipated and the condition of success is timely and precise execution.” Foch’s statement was true when he made it during the Great War, and it was likewise true when applied to George Gordon Meade’s situation at Salisbury Ridge at Williamsport. Foch’s words of wisdom help to explain Meade’s actions on July 12, 1863.
Given the failure of Pleasonton, who had been relieved of his duties as temporary chief of staff and who had returned to his permanent role as commander of the Cavalry Corps, to find and provide detailed and accurate intelligence on the dispositions of the Confederate army, it was, therefore, prudent and wise to find and reconnoiter the Confederate line. Consequently, Meade ordered the Army of the Potomac to probe at Lee’s position, and his men spent the 11th and 12th doing just that, with sharp skirmishing spreading up and down the length of Lee’s nine-mile-long line of battle. He wanted to attack on July 13, but he was concerned about it and wanted the opinions of his commanders before issuing the necessary orders. He held a council of war on the night of July 12, where he polled his officers. His new chief of staff, Humphreys, chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, and all of his corps commanders attended the meeting. Gen. James Wadsworth, filling for an ill John Newton, Howard, Pleasonton and Warren all wanted to attack, but Sedgwick, Slocum, Sykes, French and Hays were opposed. Humphreys, Pleasonton and Warren were not given a vote, meaning that five infantry corps commanders were opposed, and only two in favor of attacking on July 13. Even though he was spoiling for a fight, Meade wisely elected to follow the wishes of his commanders. July 13 would be spent further probing the Confederate defenses, and then the army would make an all-out assault all along the lines first thing in the morning on July 14.
Unfortunately for Meade, the water level of the flooded Potomac River had been dropping steadily and was almost fordable. Further, Lee’s quartermaster officers had been busily building a new pontoon bridge across the river at Falling Waters, where Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps would cross (the Confederate pontoon bridge across the river had been destroyed by a Union cavalry task force on July 4, and a new one had to be constructed from materials scavenged from local barns and warehouses). Only Ewell’s corps and the cavalry would cross at Williamsport. By the night of July 13, the level of the river had dropped to the point where the river could be forded at two locations at the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport. The movement began after dark, with Stuart’s men creating a diversion to foster the illusion that the Southern infantry still manned the lines. By the time that the Union attack kicked off early the next morning, only Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Hill’s Third Corps remained north of the Potomac River. When the Union infantry advanced on the morning of July 14, it found the formidable Confederate works empty. The fates had deprived George Gordon Meade of the opportunity to test the mettle of his army on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
“No commander ever gains perfect intelligence,” correctly notes Prof. Christopher Stowe, who is the authority on George Gordon Meade, in pointing out how badly Alfred Pleasonton failed Meade during the pursuit of Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg. “The multitude of messages flying back and forth paints an always-varied, often-contradictory, and almost-immediately dated situation. The key here is what Frederick the Great called coup d’oeil–the ability to anticipate and respond to events on the battlefield (or in the operational area) quickly. Meade was too new to the command and control of a mass army acting on the operational offensive and was mentally and physically exhausted; thus he didn’t entirely trust his judgment during the weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg.”
As Stowe properly points out, Meade’s management of the pursuit was far from perfect. Again, it bears noting that when the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia began on July 7, George Gordon Meade had all of nine days of experience under his belt as an army commander, three of which had been spent locked in mortal combat with a dangerous enemy. Probably as a consequence of his inexperience, he might have been more confident and might not have called the council of war on the night of July 12, and instead might have ordered an all-out attack all along his lines for July 13.
As his staff officer Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman astutely observed of Meade in the fall of 1863, “He doesn’t move unless he knows how many men he has, how many men his enemy has, and what kind of country he had to go through.” As Stowe points out, this trait was “admirable in the main, but in a people’s war, this can have a deleterious effect in one’s job security.” Lyman accurately described who George Meade was—a man who wisely and sensibly made his dispositions and plans based on accurate information. Pleasonton’s egregious failure to provide him with the detailed and accurate intelligence he needed probably caused the inexperienced army commander to be unduly cautious in holding the July 12 council of war instead of pitching in, as his aggressive nature was telling him to do.
We will never know how that cautiousness would have played out. As we will examine in the fifth installment of this series, the defensive position designed and constructed by Robert E. Lee and his engineers was incredibly strong, well-prepared, and amply manned with soldiers whose morale remained high in spite of their defeat at Gettysburg, and the Army of the Potomac may very well have dashed itself against the Scylla and Charybdis of Lee’s army, thereby negating the army’s great victory in Pennsylvania.Scridb filter
Part three in a series.
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.In part two of this series, we examined the impact of the heavy losses sustained by the command structure of the Army of the Potomac on its ability to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle again before it could cross the rain-swollen Potomac River after the Battle of Gettysburg. In this part, we will examine the operating orders and operating environment that greatly hindered Meade and kept him tied to Gettysburg for three days after the end of the battle.
At all times pertinent, Meade was under orders to ensure that his army remained interposed between Lee’s army and Washington, D.C. This mandate severely limited Meade’s ability to operate. Lee’s army began its retreat late on the day on July 4, and it had largely abandoned the battlefield by the afternoon of July 5. However, it was unclear whether Lee intended to retreat across the Potomac River and to the safety of Virginia, or whether he intended to find a strong defensive position in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, hole up there, and wait for Meade to attack him on ground of Lee’s own choosing. Lee’s intentions did not become obvious until the failed attempt of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division to seize and hold the Potomac River crossings at Williamsport, Maryland on July 6 that Lee intended to use to get across the flooded river. Buford’s report that all of the Army of Northern Virginia’s wagons and elements of its infantry were present in Williamsport that night finally provided Meade with the proof he needed to set the Army of the Potomac in motion since he no longer had to worry about Lee holing up in the mountains to the west of Gettysburg or his trying to take Washington.
However, Lee’s retreat provided a different set of problems for Meade. Still constrained by the orders to keep his army interposed between Lee and Washington, Meade had to use a longer route to advance on Lee. Rather than simply following Lee along the same roads that the Southern army had used, Meade had to follow along the eastern spine of South Mountain, keeping Washington covered at all times. This added distance—and time—to the route of march and prevented the Army of the Potomac from arriving at Williamsport as quickly as it otherwise might have. Mix in the head start enjoyed by the Army of Northern Virginia and the flanking route forced upon Meade meant that not only would Lee enjoy the initiative, it also meant that Lee and his engineers would have plenty of time to choose and develop a strong defensive position along the northern bank of the Potomac River.
Once Meade was persuaded that Lee had retreated to the Potomac River crossings on the night of July 6, he set the army in motion. And once it began moving the Army of the Potomac moved with alacrity. As just one example, by late afternoon on July 8, one of the divisions of the XI Corps was in position to reinforce Buford’s fight against J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate at cavalry at Boonsboro, Maryland, having covered 42 miles to get there. By the 10th, nearly the entire army was in position. It simply is not true to say that the Army of the Potomac did not move promptly once Meade set it in motion.
The fact that it did so is nothing short of remarkable given the logistical constraints it faced. It began raining heavily late in the day on July 3, and did not end for a number of days. It must be remembered that there were no paved roads in those days, so the heavy roads turned most dirt roads into bottomless seas of sticky muck that greatly inhibited movement, prompting a Massachusetts soldier to describe the roads as “one immense hogwallow the entire distance.” The mud was between ankle and knee deep in most places, meaning that each step was exhausting for the blueclad soldiers, whose woolen trousers, woolen socks, and brogans became sodden and heavy with the thick, gooey mud that they had to slog through. “The mud,” grumbled one, “in some places seems bottomless and ankle deep at best and tenacious as glue.” If the going was this difficult for men marching on foot, imagine how difficult the passage was for wagons and artillery, which bogged down completely in the thick mire.
The men of the VI Corps in particular had a hard way to go. They had to cross Catoctin Mountain during the dark, rainy night, climbing four miles up the steep mountain on their hands and knees as they struggled along. “The road was narrow, crooked, and rocky, closely hugged on either side by the thicket of trees and bushes,” recalled Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Infantry. “The night was dark as inky blackness, and the rain poured as I have seldom seen it pour before. The road was steep, awful steep, so steep that one fellow, who was perhaps inclined to exaggerate a bit, declared it was worse than perpendicular, that the hill rather canted under.” They spent the entire night fighting the mountain, soaked to the skin and coated with mud. “Napoleon crossing the Alps will no longer be mentioned as the climax of heroic accomplishments,” declared Fisk. “Sedgwick marching over the Catoctin Mountains has entirely eclipsed that. That was undoubtedly bad enough, but it bears a feeble comparison to what we did.”
The one good thing about the route of march forced upon the Army of the Potomac by Meade’s operating orders was that much of the Army of the Potomac utilized the macadamized National Road, one of the few hard-surface all-weather roads in the area. Named for their inventor, the Scottish civil engineer John Loudon McAdam, these roads consisted of compressed layers of gravel set on a cement bed with limestone shoulders and with drainage ditches on either side of the road. Ditches at the sides of the road provided necessary drainage. While hardened and much less prone to turning into mud bogs, they had rough, abrasive surfaces that played havoc on horseshoes and brogans. However, the macadamized National Road permitted the Army of the Potomac’s rolling stock, in particular, to move much more quickly than it otherwise might have, thereby mitigating some of the time factor involved. The National Road also allowed the weary Northern infantry to escape from the bottomless mud pits that the rest of the road network had become.
Thus, the combination of Meade’s operational orders—having to keep his army interposed between the Army of Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. at all times—and not knowing what the enemy’s intentions were for the first couple of days, keeping him pinned in Gettysburg until Lee’s intentions could be determined with certainty, delayed his movement and then forced him to employ a longer route of march, severely limiting his ability to move directly on the Potomac River crossings. Then, the terrible weather conditions and the major logistical challenges that the atrocious conditions caused created nearly insurmountable hurdles. That the disparate elements of the Army of the Potomac moved as quickly and as efficiently as they did was a remarkable accomplishment that is too often overlooked, and is a credit to Meade’s staff for managing this operation.
Finally, we must examine the logistical situation. The Army of the Potomac had used up much of its ammunition and supplies at Gettysburg. The limbers of its artillery units needed to be refilled, and so did the cartridge boxes of the infantry. Meade’s logistical chain needed time to re-supply the army. That practical necessity also hindered Meade’s decision-making freedom. The Army of Northern Virginia, by contrast, had been receiving supplies around the clock at Williamsport. A small ferry called Lemon’s Ferry carried Lee’s wagons across the Potomac River one at a time and returned with crates of supplies. The ferry ran twenty-four hours a day, and each trip brought back more ammunition and other supplies. By the time that the Army of the Potomac was in position to attack, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been fully resupplied.
In part four of this series, we will examine the question of whether the Army of the Potomac should have launched an attack on Lee’s positions around Williamsport sooner than its general advance on July 14, which found the trenches empty and Lee’s army gone.Scridb filter
Part two in a series
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.
In the first installment of this series, we reviewed the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War with respect to the conduct of the pursuit of the defeated Army of Northern Virginia by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Specifically, the Joint Committee’s report, penned by Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, condemned Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. Wade claimed that the army commander’s pursuit was conducted too timidly and too slowly, thereby allowing the defeated Confederate army to escape. This article will examine how the heavy casualties among the Army of the Potomac’s command structure severely inhibited its ability to fight another decisive battle.
As an initial point, it bears noting that Meade had been in command of the Army of the Potomac for a mere five days when the Battle of Gettysburg ended. He obviously was very inexperienced as an army commander, but in spite of that inexperience, he fought a great defensive battle and did what his predecessors had been unable to do: defeat Robert E. Lee on the field of battle. But he also had never managed a large-scale pursuit of a defeated enemy, and had to do so under some really terrible conditions and circumstances.
Due to the exigencies of changing commanders on the eve of a great battle, Meade was stuck with Joseph Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield. Meade despised Butterfield, and Butterfield in turn returned the sentiment. They barely tolerated each other. Butterfield was wounded during the artillery barrage before Pickett’s Charge, leaving Meade without a chief of staff until his friend Andrew A. Humphreys became chief of staff on July 10, 1863. For that week, his de facto chief of staff was Cavalry Corps commander Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who simply did not have either the bandwidth or the talent to perform both roles at the same time. That, in turn, badly affected the efficiency of both the Army of the Potomac’s staff AND the Cavalry Corps, which had a leadership vacuum when it most needed firm and attentive leadership.
As one example, Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division briefly pursued the Confederate wagon train of wounded when it left Gettysburg, including fighting a rear guard action near Caledonia Furnace. Once that wagon train of wounded reached the Mason-Dixon Line, Gregg had no orders to go further, and his division went into camp near Chambersburg, effectively out of the war for a week. Nothing further is heard from any of Gregg’s three brigades until July 15, AFTER the Army of Northern Virginia had made its way across the Potomac River to safety. Further, Pleasonton’s inattentiveness and inefficiency meant that there was no coordination whatsoever between the activities of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division and Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division other than the attempts to coordinate made on an ad hoc basis by Buford and Kilpatrick on the night of July 5, and then again on July 8 during the Battle of Boonsboro.
However, the failure of Buford and Kilpatrick to coordinate their attacks allowed at least an entire division (Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Third Corps) to escape at Falling Waters on July 14. A coordinated attack by two full divisions of cavalry may well have bagged Heth’s entire command on the north side of the Potomac River. Instead, the disjointed and uncoordinated attacks of Buford and Kilpatrick, while they led to the mortal wounding of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew and the capture of a good number of prisoners, did not accomplish anything close to what more coordinated and better-timed efforts would have. Pleasonton’s preoccupation with serving as chief of staff meant that numerous opportunities were lost, assets were not utilized properly, and without adequate leadership. That the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps performed as well as it did during the pursuit is a credit to Buford and Kilpatrick.
In addition, Meade lost three of his seven infantry corps commanders. Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, a fellow Pennsylvania and career Regular with whom Meade was close, was his principal subordinate, and the one upon whom Meade had relied most heavily. Reynolds, who had reportedly turned down command of the army, was a wing commander at the time he was killed, responsible for more than half of the Army of the Potomac (the I, III, and XI Corps). Reynolds was also very aggressive, and when he fell, Maj. Gen. John Newton replaced him. Newton was a capable professional soldier, but he was brand new to corps command—he had never commanded a corps before July 1, 1863—and was naturally cautious as a result. Further, the I Corps took very heavy losses on July 1, and was a shadow of its former self as a result. Meade simply could not rely upon Newton to be aggressive.
Likewise, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the II Corps, was badly wounded during the repulse of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack on July 3. After Reynolds fell, Meade sent Hancock to Gettysburg to take command of the field and to determine whether it was a good place for the army to stand and fight. Hancock had been magnificent throughout the entire Battle of Gettysburg, and his loss was immeasurable. Again, he was an extremely aggressive soldier who vigorously advocated a counterattack after the repulse of Pickett’s attack. When Hancock went down with his wound, Brig. Gen. William Hays took his place. Hays, recently exchanged after being captured at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, had never commanded a division previously, let alone a corps. A West Pointer and career artillerist, Hays had no experience with commanding such a large body of men and was also very cautious as a result of his inexperience.
Finally, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, the commander of the III Corps, while an amateur soldier, was nothing if not aggressive. Sickles had no formal military training and held his lofty position as a result of his having been an influential Democratic Congressman from New York. His aggressive movement of his entire corps forward to a plateau along the Emmitsburg Road caught the brunt of the furious Confederate attack on July 2, 1863, and Sickles had a leg taken off by a Confederate cannonball. Brig. Gen. David Birney, another officer with no formal military training, temporarily assumed command of III Corps by virtue of being its senior division commander. Then, on July 10, Maj. Gen. William H. French assumed command of III Corps when his division was incorporated into the corps. French, a West Point-trained career artillerist, was a hard-drinking professional soldier who had washed out of division command with the Army of the Potomac once before. French was not known for being aggressive—it’s entirely likely that the most aggressive move that Old Blinky, as he was known the men in the ranks for the frenzied way he fluttered his eyes when he talked, ever made was on a bottle of whiskey. During the winter of 1863-1864, the III Corps was dissolved just so that the Army of the Potomac could be rid of French.
The remaining corps commanders were Maj. Gen. George Sykes (V Corps), Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick (VI Corps), Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard (XI Corps), and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum (XII Corps), with Slocum being the most senior at eight months. Slocum, known for being exceedingly cautious and by the book, had the unflattering nickname of “Slow Come”, and had refused to come to the field and take command on July 1 after Reynolds fell. Sedgwick, in command of the VI Corps for about six months, was capable and popular with the men, but was not known for aggressiveness either. Howard had performed wretchedly at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and, while more aggressive than the others, was largely incompetent as a corps commander. And Sykes, another career Regular who carried the descriptive moniker of “Tardy George”, had only been promoted to corps command when Meade was ordered to assume command of the army on June 28. He was inexperienced in corps command and was also not known for aggressiveness.
Thus, having lost his most aggressive commanders and saddled with very inexperienced corps commander, Meade had nobody to advocate really aggressive activity. Further, he lost the two subordinates he most trusted and depended on most heavily in Reynolds and Hancock, and instead had to rely upon four inexperienced temporary corps commanders in Newton, Hays, Birney and French. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Army of the Potomac did not rashly pitch into the Army of Northern Virginia’s positions along the Potomac River.
The Army of the Potomac’s strength on June 30, 1863 was approximately 93,000 men. It suffered more than 23,000 casualties, or losses of about 25%, at Gettysburg. It also suffered heavy losses among its brigade commanders. These heavy losses, combined with the casualties sustained in the high command of the army, their replacement with officers who were far less aggressive, and the inattentiveness and inefficiency of Alfred Pleasonton, all conspired against Meade.
In the next installment, we will examine the operating orders and environment that governed most of Meade’s actions and which hindered his ability to act freely in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.Scridb filter
Part one in a series
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.My two most recent posts dealt with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s attempt to crucify George Gordon Meade for allegedly deciding to retreat from the battlefield at Gettysburg. Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles made those allegations in an attempt to deflect criticism from his disobedience to Meade’s orders at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 and also because he was angry at Meade for rebuffing his attempts to return to command of the III Corps in the fall of 1863. Sickles’ disobedience subjected his III Corps to near destruction at the hands of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s sledgehammer attack up the Emmitsburg Road. After days of testimony, Sen. Benjamin Wade, a Radical Republican from Ohio and the chairman of the Joint Committee, was forced to admit that there was insufficient evidence to condemn Meade. Despite that fact, Wade’s clear bias against Meade—whom he thought was too timid—shone through. Wade hoped to find sufficient evidence to force the removal of Meade from command of the Army of the Potomac, and must have been bitterly disappointed about not finding sufficient evidence to support his plan.
Wade, however, was not finished with George Meade. Sounding an all-too-common theme, Wade also accused the commander of the Army of the Potomac of being unduly cautious in his pursuit of the beaten Confederate army after Gettysburg, thereby allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape, rather than attacking it on the north side of the rain-swollen and impassable Potomac River. As we are approaching the anniversary of the events in question, it seems appropriate to examine this question and to determine whether Wade’s report came to the proper conclusion.
After hearing substantial testimony before the Joint Committee on the question of Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the beaten Confederate army, Wade’s lengthy report found:
All the witnesses but General Meade state that it was very apparent, on the morning of the 4th of July, that the enemy were in full retreat, and Generals Pleasonton, Warren, Birney, and others state that they counseled an immediate pursuit. General Birney says that he asked and obtained permission to make an attack that morning on the enemy as they were crossing a point near him on the pike to Hagerstown; but just as he had commenced the movement to attack, a staff officer rode up with a written order from General Meade not to attack, but to let the enemy go, which was done. General Pleasonton states that when he urged General Meade to order an immediate advance of the army after the enemy, he replied that “he was not sure they might not make another attack on him, and to satisfy himself, he wanted to know first that they were in retreat, and for that reason I was to send the cavalry out to ascertain.” He states that General Gregg, 22 miles on the Chambersburg road, reported at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 4th, “that the road was strewn with wounded and stragglers, ambulances and caissons, and that there was great demoralization and confusion.” This was immediately reported to General Meade, but no pursuit was ordered.
But little was done on the 4th of July. General Warren says: “On the morning of the 4th General Meade ordered demonstrations in front of our line, but they were very feebly made. And when the officers met together that evening to report the state of things in their front, there was so little definitely known as to the position and designs of the enemy, that after some consultation they determined, I believe, to try and find out something before they did move.”
That night a council of war was held. Its deliberations and results are thus described by General Butterfield, from memoranda taken at the time: “I have here the minutes I kept of the council of the 4th of July. That council was held at the headquarters of General Neal; he gave up his headquarters to General Meade. The council was opened by General Meade explaining his instructions, and asking the corps commanders for their advice as to what course he should pursue.
“Question. Can you state what General Meade said his instructions were?
“Answer. I think he said his instructions were to cover Washington and Baltimore. He said he had no knowledge of General Foster’s movements. There was a rumor that General Foster was coming up from Washington with reinforcements. General Meade said he desired the earnest assistance and advice of every corps commander. The corps commanders commenced giving their opinions, beginning with General Slocum and followed by General Sedgwick and General Howard. Their advice, according to my memorandum, was as follows: “General Slocum would move on an interior line as far as Emmettsburg, and then, if the enemy had not gone from Gettysburg, hold on there and push out a force at once with a view of preventing the enemy from crossing the Potomac. “General Sedgwick would wait at Gettysburg until certain that the enemy were moving away.” General Howard would like to remain at Gettysburg and ascertain what the enemy were doing, but thought it would do no harm to send a corps to Emmettsburg.
“General Meade then determined to change the manner of procedure in the council, and the following questions were written by his instructions; a portion of these questions are in his handwriting and a portion in mine: “The first question was, ‘Shall this army remain here]’ (That is, at Gettysburg.) “Second. ‘If we remain here, shall we assume the offensive?’ “Third. ‘Do you deem it expedient to move towards Williamsport, through Emmettsburg]’ “Fourth. ‘Shall we pursue the enemy, if he is retreating on his direct line of retreat. “To the first question General Newton answered ‘No;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ and to the third question, ‘Yes.’ “General Slocum answered to the first question.” ‘No;’ the second question was involved in that answer; to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to the fourth question, ‘To pursue on the direct line of retreat with cavalry, moving with the infantry to cut him off.”
“General Sedgwick to the first question answered, “Would remain here (at Gettysburg) until positive information concerning their movement;” to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to the fourth question, “Only cavalry.”
“General Howard to the first question did not exactly say yes, and did not exactlv say no, but would commence a movement to-morrow; to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to he fourth question, ‘By a show of force.’
“General Sykes to the first question, as to remaining at Gettysburg, answered, ‘Until we know where the enemy is gone;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question he made no answer, his answer to the first question involving that; to the fourth question he answered, ‘He would pursue with cavalry only.’
“General Birney to the first question answered, ‘Yes, until we see;’ to the second question, ‘ No ;’ to the fourth question, ‘ He thinks not.’
“General Pleasonton to the first question answered ‘No;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Move by that route;’ to the fourth question, ‘Would pursue with infantry and cavalry.’
“General Hays answered to the first question, ‘ Yes, until we find out where the enemy are and what they are doing;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes, if we move;’ to the fourth question, ‘No, only with cavalry.’
“General Warren as to the first question, whether we should remain there, answered, ‘Yes, until we see what they are doing;’ to the second question, about assuming the offensive, ‘Not if the enemy remains.’
“Those are the questions to the corps commanders and their answers. The summary which I made for General Meade in the council of the answers to the first question, whether we should remain at Gettysburg, was: “Those in favor—Birney, Sedgwick, Sykes, Hays, and Warren.” Opposed—Newton, Pleasonton, and Slocum. “Doubtful–Howard.”
On the 5th of July the 6th corps commenced to follow the enemy, and on the 6th and 7th the rest of the army moved, going to Frederick rather than directly after the enemy, on account of some apprehensions of the difficulty of following the enemy through the mountain passes, which were reported to be strongly fortified. General Howe states that his division had the lead of the 6th corps, after passing Boonsboro’, but he was directed to move carefully, and not to come in contact with the enemy, as a general engagement was not desired. He states that when near Funkstown, General Buford reported to him that his cavalry held a strong position some distance to the front, which, in his opinion, the enemy should not be allowed to occupy, but that he was pretty hardly engaged there; his ammunition was nearly out, and that he was expected to go further to the right; and asked General Howe to send forward a brigade and hold the position. General Howe applied to General Sedgwick for permission to relieve General Buford, but received in reply the answer, “No; we do not want to bring on a general engagement.” General Buford considered the position of such importance that General Howe applied the second time for permission to occupy it, representing that General Buford would soon be compelled to abandon it, as his ammunition was giving out. To this application he received the reply that he might occupy the position if General Buford left it. General Buford did leave it, and General Howe occupied and held the position. General Pleasonton states that on the morning of the 12th of July the cavalry in front of General Slocum’s command drove the enemy from an important position, and could have held it, but General Slocum ordered it to halt, for fear of bringing on a general engagement, and the enemy afterwards brought a strong force there and held the point.
In reference to the movement of our army after the battle of Gettysburg, General Warren testifies: ”We commenced the pursuit with the 6th corps on the 5th of July, and on the 6th a large portion of the army moved towards Emmettsburg, and all that was left followed the next day. On July 7 the headquarters were at Frederick; on July 8 headquarters were at Middletown, and nearly all the army was concentrated in the neighborhood of that place and South Mountain. On July 9 headquarters were at South Mountain house, and the advance of the army at Boonsboro’ and Rohrersville. On July 10 the headquarters were moved to Antietam creek; the left of the line crossed the creek, and the right of the line moved up near Funkstown. On the 11th of July the engineers put a new bridge over the Antietam creek; the left of the line advanced to Fairplay and Jones’s crossroads, while the right remained nearly stationary. In my opinion we should have fought the enemy the next morning, July 12.”
No attack was ordered, but the question was submitted to a council of the corps commanders on the night of the 12th of July. General Meade says: “I represented to those generals, so far as I knew it, the situation of affairs. I told them that I had reason to believe, from all I could ascertain, that General Lee’s position was a very strong one, and that he was prepared to give battle, and defend it if attacked; that it was not in my power, from a want of knowledge of the ground, and from not having had time to make reconnoissances, to indicate any precise mode of attack, or any precise point of attack; that, nevertheless, I was in favor of moving forward and attacking the enemy, and taking the consequences; but that I left it to their judgment, and would not do it unless it met with their approval.”
Generals Howard, Pleasonton. and Wadsworth were in favor of attacking the enemy at once. General Warren, who was not then in command of a corps, says: “I do not think I ever saw the principal corps commanders so unanimous in favor of not fighting as on that occasion.” The opinion of the council being strongly against attacking the enemy at that time, the 13th of July was passed in reconnoitering the enemy’s position. But General Meade says that the day was rainy and misty, and not much information was obtained. General Meade, however, ordered an attack to be made at daylight of the 14th; but when the army moved forward it was ascertained that the whole rebel army had crossed the night of the 13th, and had escaped. General Meade says: “It is proper I should say that an examination of the enemy’s lines, and of the defences which he had made, brings me clearly to the opinion that an attack under the circumstances in which I had proposed to make it would have resulted disastrously to our arms. My opinion is now that General Lee evacuated that position, not from any want of ammunition, or the fear that he would be dislodged by any active operations on my part, but that he was fearful that a force would be sent by Harper’s Ferry to cut off his communications—which I had intended to do, having brought up a bridge from Washington, and sent the cavalry down there—and that he could not have maintained that position probably a day if his communications had been cut. That was what caused him to retire.” This opinion of General Meade is not sustained by that of any other general who has appeared before the committee. Generals Pleasonton, Warren, Birney, Doubleday, and Howe all concur in the opinion that an attack upon the enemy before he recrossed the Potomac would have been most disastrous to him, and have resulted in the dispersion if not the capture of the greater portion of his army.
The rebel army moved up the Shenandoah Valley, while our army crossed in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and followed on this side the mountains. On the 23d of July a column of our troops under General French, entering through Manassas Gap, came in contact with the enemy, but not much injury was inflicted upon him. General Warren says that, in his opinion, had General French made the attack with his whole corps, instead of with a brigade only, a decisive blow would have been inflicted on the enemy. Preparations were made for an attack the next morning, but during the night the enemy again escaped.
The enemy continued his retreat until he reached Culpeper, and then took up a position between the Rappahannock and Rapidan.
Our forces withdrew from Manassas Gap and followed the enemy, reaching Warrenton and the Rappahannock about the 1st of August, when the pursuit ceased. General Meade says that he expressed the opinion to the government that the pursuit should still be continued, inasmuch as he believed our relative forces were more favorable to us than they would be at any subsequent time if the enemy were allowed time to recuperate; but that he was directed by the general-in-chief to take up a threatening attitude on the Rappahannock, but not to advance.
Shortly after this a division of troops were detached from General Meade’s command and sent to South Carolina; and other troops were sent to New York to enforce the draft.
No active movements of our army took place until about the middle of September, when information was received that Lee’s army had been weakened by the withdrawal of Longstreet’s corps for operations in the southwest. Our cavalry was then sent across the Rappahannock, taking the enemy completely by surprise, but the army did not follow until three days afterwards. General Meade says that upon arriving before the enemy, who had retired behind the Rapidan, he considered his position there so strong, both naturally and artificially, that he deemed it impossible to attack him in front: and that, with the withdrawal of two corps of his troops for operations in Tennessee, led to a suspension of active operations until about the middle of October.
At that time General Meade says he regarded himself as about 10,000 men stronger than General Lee, and was contemplating an advance against the enemy. But General Lee made a demonstration upon the right flank of our army, whereupon General Meade determined to fall back, which he did until he finally reached the position of Centreville and Bull Run, destroying the bridge across the Rappahannock and abandoning the railroad communications to the enemy.
As soon as our army stopped, General Lee began himself to fall back, destroying the railroad, and retiring to the line of the Rappahannock. There seems to be no doubt that the enemy might have been advantageously met at any one of several points between the Rappahannock and Bull Run; but no fighting of importance occurred, except at Bristow station, where the 2d corps, then under the command of General Warren, met the enemy and repulsed them with heavy loss.
General Warren says that he thinks General Meade supposed that the enemy intended to fight him when he made his advance, and therefore General Meade desired to select the best position for that purpose: that General Meade had no idea that Lee would go off without attacking him. General Warren also says that General Meade was very much misinformed as to what was going on; and that some of his officers failed him in spirit. By this retreat and the destruction of our lines of communication with the Rappahannock, the remainder of the fall season was lost for active operations.
Our committee could not forbear asking the witnesses before them, if the army, after all these indecisive advances and retrograde movements, still retained confidence in its commanding general. Various answers were returned to this inquiry, all, however, tending to establish the fact that much discouragement had been felt by the army at these ineffective operations, and that but for the highly intelligent character of the rank and file it could never have retained even its then effective condition. General Pleasonton states that the cavalry under his command did not retain confidence in the military ability of General Meade. General Birney states the same about his corps, stating that while General Meade was rather liked as a man, he was not regarded as a man of resolution, or one who is willing to assume that responsibility required by the position he occupies. General Howe states that, in his opinion, the rank and file of the army do not regard General Meade as possessed of that zeal, activity, and energy necessary to carry on an offensive warfare generally, but he admits that the most of the corps commanders would probably say that General Meade was eminently qualified for the command he now holds. That opinion General Howe qualifies, however, by stating that so far as he has observed, the most of the principal officers of the army of the Potomac, including its commanding general, are governed by the same sympathies, feelings, and considerations which were infused into the army by its commander during the Peninsular campaign. General Birney says that many of the principal officers believed that General McClellan was the only general who should command this army; although there is not as much of that feeling now as formerly. General Doubleday bluntly says: “There has always been a great deal of favoritism in the army of the Potomac. No man who is an anti-slavery man or an anti-McClellan man can expect decent treatment in that army as at present constituted.” General Warren states that after the battle of Gettysburg the army was deprived of many of its best corps commanders, General Reynolds having been killed, Generals Sickles and Hancock wounded, and General Meade made commander of the army; that since that time the corps commanders have not been all equal to their position, and consequently the army had been less effective in its operations.
Wade’s bias against Meade comes through loudly and clearly in his condemnation of the army commander’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia in the days after the Battle of Gettysburg. The question is whether those findings were supported by the actual facts. The next five articles will examine those questions in detail. In the next part of this series, I will examine that question and will discuss how the casualties in the Army of the Potomac’s command structure inhibited its ability to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia.Scridb filter
In part one of this two-part series, we examined the content of the Pipe Creek Circular, and we also looked at the Pipe Creek Line itself. In this, the second part, we will examine the controversy created by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s handling of the Pipe Creek Circular. Specifically, we will examine its role in the controversy that Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles stirred up to deflect attention away from his own conduct at Gettysburg. To recap briefly, Meade had the Army of the Potomac’s engineers lay out a very strong defensive position along Parr Ridge, a dominant east-west ridge that paralleled Big Pipe Creek in Maryland between Manchester and Middleburg, which is south and west of Taneytown. The reality is that this position was even more commanding than the position held by the Army of the Northern Virginia on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg the previous winter, and it was easily defending. Had the Army of the Potomac taken up a position there, it is very unlikely that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army could have driven the blueclad soldiers off of it unless they somehow managed to outflank the position.
At the same time, Meade did not make the final decision to stand at Gettysburg until his council of war on the night of July 2. Earlier that day, Sickles disobeyed a direct order and advanced his Third Corps from its intended position on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge to a prominent plateau along the Emmitsburg Road near the Joseph Sherfy peach orchard. Sickles did not like his assigned position and decided to make the move on his own initiative. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, the commander of the Second Corps, which was next in line next to Sickles’ Third Corps, watched the movement and said, “Wait a moment–you will soon see them tumbling back.” Unfortunately, Hancock was correct. Meade tried to countermand the movement, but it was too late. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps was about to launch its determined assault up the Emmitsburg Road.
As an initial note, it seems quite obvious that Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s left wing, did not receive the Pipe Creek Circular before he was killed at approximately 9:15 a.m. on July 1, 1863. Reynolds came to Gettysburg to reinforce Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division and was killed while placing troops of the Iron Brigade in position. Unfettered by the strictures of the Pipe Creek Circular, Reynolds made the critical decision to commit the army’s left wing to the fight at Gettysburg. Reynolds was killed early in the action, but his First Corps and Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps committed to the fighting there. The Third Corps and Twelfth Corps arrived that night, meaning that all but the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Corps were on the field that night.
In the interim, Meade sent Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock to Gettysburg to ascertain whether Gettysburg was the right place for the Army of the Potomac to make its stand. Hancock further validated Reynolds’ decision and reported to Meade the Army of the Potomac held a strong defensive position. Meade then rode to the battlefield himself, arriving late in the evening. However, and as pointed out in the first post of this series, the decision to stand and fight at Gettysburg was not finalized until Meade’s council of war on the night of July 2. Up until then, the possibility of a retreat to the Pipe Creek Line remained a very real possibility.
Thanks to meddling by the Radical Republicans in Congress, that possible retreat became the subject of a series of Congressional hearings during the winter of 1863-1864. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, headed by Radical Republican Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio, sought to prod President Abraham Lincoln into pursuing more aggressive war policies against the Confederacy, and it sought to crucify George Meade for allowing Lee’s army to escape across the Potomac River in the wake of its defeat at Gettysburg.
The Joint Committee held a series of hearings during the winter of 1864, where Sickles accused Meade of mismanaging the Battle of Gettysburg, planning to retreat from Gettysburg prior to the Union victory there, and failing to pursue and defeat the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Potomac River. Sickles, a former Congressman and the leader of Tammany Hall, was determined to deflect criticism from his own controversial role at Gettysburg, where he intentionally disobeyed Meade’s orders and nearly caused the destruction of the Third Corps in the process.
After an exhaustive investigation reminiscent of the repeated Congressional inquiries into the death of an American ambassador at Benghazi, Libya, the Joint Committee ultimately found no evidence to support Sickles’ claims. However, Wade, determined to make the Lincoln Administration look bad, nevertheless spun the results to paint Meade in the most negative light possible.
Wade’s report indicated:
General Meade, however, decided upon making a stand at another point for the purpose of receiving the attack of the enemy, and selected a position the general line of which was Pipe Creek, the left resting in the neighborhood of Middleburg, and the right at Manchester, and even down to somewhat late in the day of the 1st of July was engaged in making arrangements for occupying that position as soon as the movements of the enemy should indicate the time for doing so. To that end, on the morning of the 1st of July, a preliminary circular was issued, directing his corps commanders to make the necessary preparations for carrying the order into effect as soon as circumstances should arise to render it necessary or advisable in the opinion of the commanding general; and it was not until information reached General Meade, in the afternoon of July 1, that the cavalry, under General Buford, had come in contact with a large force of the enemy near Gettysburg, and that General Reynolds, who had gone to his assistance with the 1st and 11th corps, had been killed, that the attention of General Meade seems to have been seriously directed to the position at Gettysburg for meeting the enemy. He sent General Hancock there to report the condition of our troops and the character of the ground. General Meade says that before he received the report of General Hancock he had decided, upon information received from officers from the scene of action, to concentrate the army at Gettysburg, and it was done that night and the next day, and the battle was there fought.
At least that much of the report finds that Meade acted prudently and appropriately. However, Wade was far from finished with the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
The report, biased as it was, relied on the testimony of three officers, including Sickles and the Army of the Potomac’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield (a close ally and friend of Meade’s predecessor, Joseph Hooker, who despised Meade and whom Meade despised in turn), who claimed that Meade had wanted to retreat from Gettysburg on July 2 and that only the onset of Longstreet’s attack prevented him from doing so. However, six officers, including Meade himself, claimed strongly that such was not the case. Meade’s own statements before the Joint Committee on this subject are particularly enlightening:
I have understood that an idea has prevailed that I intended an order should be issued on the morning of the 2d of July, requiring the withdrawal of the army, or the or the retreat of the army from Gettysburg, which order was not issued owing simply to the attack of the enemy having prevented it.
In reply to that, I have only to say that I have no recollection of ever having directed such an order to be issued, or ever having contemplated the issuing of such an order, and that it does seem to me that any intelligent mind who is made acquainted with the great exertions I made to mass my army at Gettysburg on the night of July 1, it must appear entirely incomprehensible that I should order it to retreat after collecting all my army there, before the enemy had done anything to require me to make a movement of any kind.
Meade returned on another occasion to give an additional statement, demonstrating remarkable restraint in the process (which, for a man with a well-known temper, had to have been a challenge):
I wanted to say a few words to the committee, in extension of the remarks which I made the last time I was here, in reference to a charge which I expected then would be made against me, and which I understand has since been made against me, to the effect that I intended that an order should be issued, on the morning of July 2, withdrawing the army from the position it then occupied at Gettysburg, and retreating, before the enemy had done anything to require me to withdraw.
It is proper that I should say that the fact of such a charge having been made here, or such a report given here, has reached me through outside sources, but in such a way that I can hardly disbelieve that such a statement has been made; and that it was made by an officer who occupied a very high and confidential position on my staff, the chief of staff. Major General Butterfield. Now, indulging in the utmost charity towards General Butterfield, and believing that he is sincere in what he says, I want to explain how it is possible that such an extraordinary idea could have got into his head.
I utterly deny, under the full solemnity and sanctity of my oath, and in the firm conviction that the day will come when the secrets of all men shall be made known — I utterly deny ever having intended or thought, for one instant, to withdraw that army, unless the military contingencies, which the future should develop during the course of the day, might render it a matter of necessity that the army should he withdrawn. I base this denial not only upon my own assertion and my own veracity, but I shall also show to the committee, from documentary evidence, the dispatches and orders issued by me at different periods during that day, that if I did intend any such operation I was at the same time doing things totally inconsistent with any such intention.
I shall also ask the committee to call before them certain other officers of my staff, whose positions were as near and confidential to me as that of General Butterfield, who, if I had had any such intention, or had given any such orders as he said I gave, would have been parties to it, would have known it, and have made arrangements in consequence thereof; all of whom, I am perfectly confident, will say they never heard of any such thing. I refer to General Hunt, chief of artillery, and who had artillery occupying a space of from four to five miles, drawn out on the road, and who, if I had intended to have withdrawn that army, should have been told to get his trains out of the way the very first thing, because the troops could not move until the artillery moved. I would also ask you to call upon General Ingalls, my chief quartermaster, who had charge of the trains. Also General Warren, my chief engineer, who will tell you that he was with me the whole of that day, in” constant intercourse and communication with me; and that instead of intending to withdraw my army I was talking about other matters. All these officers will corroborate what I say, that I never mentioned any such purpose to any of them.
General Butterfield remained at Taneytown on the night of the 1st July, and did not join me on the field until about 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning of the 2d, I having arrive 1 there at one o’clock. Soon after he arrived I did direct him to familiarize himself with the topography of the ground; and directed him to send out staff officers to learn all the roads. As I have already mentioned, in my previous testimony here, I had never before been at Gettysburg, and did not know how many roads ran from our position, or in what directions they ran. My orders to General Butterfield were similar to this:
“General Butterfield, neither I nor any man can tell what the results of this day’s operations may be. It is our duty to be prepared for every contingency, and I wish you to send out staff officers to learn all the roads that lead from this place; ascertain the positions of the corps; where their trains are; prepare to familiarize yourself with these details, so that in the event of any contingency you can, without any order, be ready to meet it.”
It was in anticipation of possible contingencies, and not at all that I had made up my mind to do anything of that kind.
I would furthermore call the attention of the committee to the absurdity of such an idea. If I had directed the order to be issued, why was it not issued? With General Butterfield’s capacity it would not have taken him more than ten or fifteen minutes to prepare such an order. We were furnished with what you call manifold letter-writers; so that, after the framework of an order is prepared, ten or a dozen copies may be made at once. Why was not the order issued; or if issued, why was it not executed? There was no obstacle to my withdrawing that army if I had desired. The enemy presented none. There was not a moment from the time the first gun was fired at Gettysburg, until we knew the enemy had retired, that I could not have withdrawn my army; therefore, if I had entertained such an idea, it seems to me extraordinary that I did not execute it.
That General Butterfield may have misapprehended what I said to him, that he may himself have deemed a retreat necessary, and thought we would be compelled to retreat in the course of the day, and in the excess of zeal, and desire to do more than he was called upon to do, may have drawn up an order of that kind, I do not deny; but I say he never showed me any such order, and it had not my sanction nor authority.
Reluctantly, Wade was forced to find that there was insufficient evidence to support the claims that Meade had ordered the Army of the Potomac to retreat from the battlefield at Gettysburg. However, the damage had been done. Meade’s credibility and authority as the commander of the Army of the Potomac had been badly undermined. There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, especially by modern politicians determined to use Congressional resources to pursue their own political agendas and witch hunts.
The Joint Committee, however, was not finished with George Meade. In another upcoming series, we will examine the allegations that Meade mismanaged the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia during the retreat from Gettysburg.Scridb filter
No battle of the American Civil War has generated more ongoing and enduring controversies than the Battle of Gettysburg. With the anniversary of the battle looming once more, I wanted to address one of the more heated and oldest controversies of the battle, the Pipe Creek Circular and how it impacted the outcome of the battle. This two-part series will address the Pipe Creek Circular and its implications for the Army of the Potomac.
On June 30, 1863, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who had only been in command of the Army of the Potomac for less than 48 hours, issued the following circular to his corps commanders:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Taneytown, July 1, 1863.
From information received, the commanding general is satisfied that the object of the movement of the army in this direction has been accomplished, viz, the relief of Harrisburg, and the prevention of the enemy’s intended invasion of Philadelphia, &c., beyond the Susquehanna. It is no longer his intention to assume the offensive until the enemy’s movements or position should render such an operation certain of success.
If the enemy assume the offensive, and attack, it is his intention, after holding them in check sufficiently long, to withdraw the trains and other impedimenta; to Withdraw the army from its present position, and form line of battle with the left resting in the neighborhood of Middleburg, and the right at Manchester, the general direction being that of Pipe Creek. For this purpose, General Reynolds, in command of the left, will withdraw the force at present at Gettysburg, two corps by the road to Taneytown and Westminster, and, after crossing Pipe Creek, deploy toward Middleburg. The corps at Emmitsburg will be withdrawn, via Mechanicsville, to Middleburg, or, if a more direct route can be found leaving Taneytown to their left, to withdraw direct to Middleburg.
General Slocum will assume command of the two corps at Hanover and Two Taverns, and withdraw them, via Union Mills, deploying one to the right and one to the left, after crossing Pipe Creek, connecting on the left with General Reynolds, and communicating his right to General Sedgwick at Manchester, who will connect with him and form the right.
The time for falling back can only be developed by circumstances. Whenever such circumstances arise as would seem to indicate the necessity for falling back and assuming this general line indicated, notice of such movement will be at once communicated to these headquarters and to all adjoining corps commanders.
The Second Corps now at Taneytown will be held in reserve in the vicinity of Uniontown and Frizellburg, to be thrown to the point of strongest attack, should the enemy make it. In the event of these movements being necessary, the trains and impedimenta will all be sent to the rear of Westminster.
Corps commanders, with their officers commanding artillery and the divisions, should make themselves thoroughly familiar with the country indicated, all the roads and positions, so that no possible confusion can ensue, and that the movement, if made, be done with good order, precision, and care, without loss or any detriment to the morale of the troops.
The commanders of corps are requested to communicate at once the nature of their present positions, and their ability to hold them in case of any sudden attack at any point by the enemy.
This order is communicated, that a general plan, perfectly understood by all, may be had for receiving attack, if made in strong force, upon any portion of our present position.
Developments may cause the commanding general to assume the offensive from his present positions.
The Artillery Reserve will, in the event of the general movement indicated, move to the rear of Frizellburg, and be placed in position, or sent to corps, as circumstances may require, under the general supervision of the chief of artillery.
The chief quartermaster will, in case of the general movement indicated, give directions for the orderly and proper position of the trains in rear of Westminster.
All the trains will keep well to the right of the road in moving, and, in case of any accident requiring a halt, the team must be hauled out of the line, and not delay the movements.
The trains ordered to Union Bridge in these events will be sent to Westminster.
General headquarters will be, in case of this movement, at Frizellburg; General Slocum as near Union Mills as the line will render best for him; General Reynolds at or near the road from Taneytown to l.
The chief of artillery will examine the line, and select positions for artillery.
The cavalry will be held on the right and left flanks after the movement is completed. Previous to its completion, it will, as now directed, cover the front and exterior lines, well out.
The commands must be prepared for a movement, and, in the event of the enemy attacking us on the ground indicated herein, to follow up any repulse.
The chief signal officer will examine the line thoroughly, and at once, upon the commencement of this movement, extend telegraphic communication from each of the following points to general headquarters near Frizellburg, viz, Manchester, Union Mills, Middleburg, and the Taneytown road.
All true Union people should be advised to harass and annoy the enemy in every way, to send in information, and taught how to do it; giving regiments by number of colors, number of guns, generals’ names, &c. All their supplies brought to us will be paid for, and not fall into the enemy’s hands.
Roads and ways to move to the right or left of the general line should be studied and thoroughly understood. All movements of troops should be concealed, and our dispositions kept from the enemy. Their knowledge of these dispositions would be fatal to our success, and the greatest care must be taken to prevent such an occurrence.
By command of Major-General Meade:
S. WILLIAMS,Assistant Adjutant-General.
Known commonly as the Pipe Creek Circular, this document was Meade’s plan to assume a formidable defensive position in Maryland that became known as the Pipe Creek Line, since it followed Big Pipe Creek. Shortly thereafter, Brig. Gen. Seth Williams, the Army of the Potomac’s adjutant general, sent out a correction to the Pipe Creek Circular:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
July 1, 1863.
So much of the instructions contained in the circular of this date, just sent to you, as relates to the withdrawal of the corps at Emmitsburg should read as follows:
The corps at Emmitsburg should be withdrawn, via Mechanics-town, to Middleburg, or, if a more direct route can be found leaving Taneytown to the left, to withdraw direct to Middleburg.
Please correct the circular accordingly.
By command of Major-General Meade:
S. WILLIAMS, Assistant Adjutant-General
These two documents make it clear that George Meade had no intention of fighting in Pennsylvania on the eve of battle. That much is beyond dispute. Where the controversy arose is with whether Meade changed his mind on July 2, 1863 or whether he intended to withdraw the Army of the Potomac from its strong defensive position at Gettysburg.
The Pipe Creek Line ran just to the north of the town of Westminster, Maryland. Westminster, in particular, had great strategic significance to the Army of the Potomac, as the Western Maryland Railroad had its terminus there. The Western Maryland would serve as the primary line of supply for the army if it was going to operate anywhere in the vicinity (including at Gettysburg), and protecting it was critical.
Meade’s engineers did an outstanding job of selecting the Pipe Creek Line, something Meade himself recognized. As envisioned by the Union engineers, the Pipe Creek Line ran along Parr Ridge, a substantial ridge that ran on an east/west axis, and which extended from Manchester, Maryland on the east end to Middleburg, Maryland on the west. With the exception of some lower ground around Middleburg, the entire position was on very high, easily defensible ground that was probably impregnable unless the wily Robert E. Lee could manage to flank the federals out of their strong position.
Meade did not make a final decision to stay and fight at Gettysburg until he held a counsel of war at his headquarters on the night of July 2; he was willing to still consider falling back to Pipe Creek if seriously threatened. Two writings by Meade support his contention. At 3:00 p.m. on July 2, just before Lt. Gen. James Longstreet opened his sledgehammer attack against the Union left at Gettysburg, Meade sent a dispatch to General-in-Chief, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, “If I find it hazardous to do so, or am satisfied the enemy is endeavoring to move to my rear, and interpose between me and Washington, I shall fall back to my supplies at Westminster,” suggesting that if there was a threat to his flank or rear, he intended to abandon his position at Gettysburg. Meade elaborated on his thought process in an 1870 letter. “Longstreet’s advice to Lee was sound military sense; it was the step I feared Lee would take, and to meet which, and be prepared for which was the object of my instructions,” he explained. “But suppose Ewell with 20,000 men had occupied Culp’s Hill and our brave soldiers had been compelled to evacuate Cemetery Ridge and withdraw . . . would the Pipe Clay Creek (the real military feature is Parr Ridge which extends through Westminster) order have been so very much out of place?”
Ultimately, Meade decided to stand and fight at Gettysburg. Again, that much is beyond dispute and is not controversial. The controversy is whether Meade actually intended to retreat and to withdraw the army to the Pipe Creek Line. We will address that controversy in the next blog post.Scridb filter
On this July 3, the 152nd anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, this ageless valediction proves itself to be true once more, explaining why so many find themselves inexplicably drawn to the battlefield at Gettysburg, including me:
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
–Bvt. Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence ChamberlainScridb filter
This is a guest post by my friend Daniel Mallock which provides food for thought about the role of the historian….
Late in the evening several days ago I was watching an episode of “Chopped”. It made a strong impression on me.
“Chopped” is an hour-long cooking competition television show that pits four chefs against each other. There are three rounds, appetizer, entrée and dessert–there’s a ten thousand dollar prize for the winner. If the judges don’t like a chef’s dish he or she is eliminated from the competition, that is, “chopped.”
For the dessert round Chef Fed prepared an English custard tart and German Baumkuchen combination. A colorful fellow with a hybrid American/German/French accent Chef Fed, obsessed with the supposed “aphrodisiac” qualities of food, finally failed to seduce the judges with his cuisine. He was chopped.
The exit walk-off of a defeated chef can be an illuminating moment. Some are egotists who complain of the incompetence of the judges, some are humble and express appreciation for having competed; some few compliment the judges or their opponents. Chef Fed’s exit was a bit different. He said, “I really appreciate the opportunity to show the judges and everyone my world of flavors.” I am not a chef, but I thought that this was a beautiful thing. I switched off the television and prepared for sleep.
It was around half past midnight. Suddenly, I had a crisis of meaning.
An accomplished chef, Fed knew exactly what he was about, what his “world” was about: superior, delicious flavors, beguiling and comforting aromas, and beautiful, balanced presentation. I thought, “He is a chef–of course he knows his ‘world.’ But what is my world? What is the world of the historian, the student of history?” That I didn’t have a ready answer was troubling. I sat for a time and thought about it. This post, prompted by Eric’s kind invitation to write on the matter, is the result.
Marc Bloch is widely considered one of the greatest French historians of the twentieth century. His last book, “The Historian’s Craft,” goes a long way in defending the study and teaching of history and of explaining its value.
A professor at the Sorbonne Bloch was a WW1 veteran. When the Nazis invaded France he left his teaching position and joined the French army once again (a reserve officer at the age of 52). With the defeat of France and Nazi occupation Bloch swiftly lost his teaching career due to the fact that he was Jewish. It was during this period that he wrote “The Historian’s Craft” (the book was never finished). But Bloch was by no means retired; he had joined the Resistance. Captured and tortured by the Nazi occupiers Bloch was executed not long after D-Day.
An anecdote he included in The Historian’s Craft, is this one, about a visit that he and his friend Henri Pirenne (another renowned European historian of the last century) made to Sweden.
“I had gone with Henri Pirenne to Stockholm; we had scarcely arrived, when he said to me: ‘What shall we go to see first? It seems that there is a new city hall here. Let’s start there.’ Then, as if to ward off my surprise, he added: ‘If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life.’ This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian.” (p.43)
Must a great historian, like Pirenne and Bloch, “love life?” The answer must be Yes.
The present is so fleeting, so swift and mercurial it is gone in an instant–and becomes the stuff of history. The future is a mist, little more than an expectation, a hope. History then is ever-expanding and as each day passes becomes more difficult to discern.
What of those who find no value in the study of history? How should a student of history respond when someone honestly asks, “What is the value of history?” Bloch has an answer.
“These condemnations offer a terrible temptation, in that they justify ignorance in advance. Fortunately, for those of us who still retain our intellectual curiosity, there is, perhaps, an appeal from their verdict.” (p.11)
Historians ought to be strongly opposed to ignorance. Isn’t the core of the historian’s work meant to eradicate such things?
We’re obliged to get to the bottom of things as best we can, to understand the living and the dead and the times in which they live and lived to the best of our ability. Certainly an honest, open-mindedness with a tempering of any bias is fundamental to the historian’s “world.” Opinions are more common than a bad cup of coffee, informed opinions–not so much.
The historian’s view must be an informed one. Our views and conclusions should be shaped by research and by a disciplined exclusion of personal bias (or tempering of it). With this self-discipline we can best legitimately weigh the merits of evidence that we examine. Aren’t we obliged to follow the records to whatever conclusion they lead? Aren’t we required to be flexible enough in our thinking so that if our conclusions (based on careful research and analysis) are unexpected ones, we can accept them?
A good portion of the historian’s “world” is the attempt at making sense of the confusion, conflicts, and conflicting views and opinions about people and events of the past. Our responsibility is all the more heavy when we find ourselves as researcher, compiler, transcriber, chronicler, analyst, judge and jury. Our strong views should be tempered by the knowledge that others just as diligent, just as scholarly, just as curious and careful as we, working with the same or similar sources may (and likely have) reached entirely different (and even completely oppositional) conclusions.
James Parton, a nineteenth-century biographer of Andrew Jackson illustrates the difficulties (that is, the muddle of the past) quite clearly. A person or event might seem to be one thing and/or its total opposite simultaneously.
“Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey a superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.” (James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 1861, I:vii; quoted in Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, 2003, xvi-xvii.)
One historian’s negative Andrew Jackson, or anybody else, is another’s hero (or both!).
Walt Whitman understood this inherent contradiction in humanity when he wrote the following in Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Making our way through the confusions of the past falls upon us, students of history. One of the benefits of good research technique and analytical skill is that our results/conclusions can be, as far as the limits of personal opinion and bias allow, verified, duplicated, and confirmed. Bloch again:
Corrupted by dogma and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification. On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day. (The Historian’s Craft, p.88.)
Our historian’s “world” then is about making sense of the past, being as honest as we possibly can, and deploying the finest and most vigorous research and analytical methods to reach conclusions that are as accurate as possible. In a sense we are guardians against ignorance and against the loss of knowledge, against the loss of myriad personal experiences and the total extinction of those who have gone before from the memories of the living. We’re open to discussion and are prepared, like any theorist working in the sciences, to have our theories challenged and if need be thrown down. The pursuit of truth cannot be about one’s ego.
Henri Pirenne was insightful and accurate in his characterization of the historian’s “world” as one built on a foundation of love of life. Perhaps those who are fully engrossed in the lives of the dead and in comprehending the influences of the past upon the present are in a particularly advantageous position to have a deep appreciation for life and for humanity. What is the value of full engagement in the events and people of the past if not to learn (and share) those lessons for the benefit of the living and the future?
History is not just about the darkness of the past, the pitch black of past times that we try to illuminate through our research and writings. It is also about coming to some understanding of the darkness and cruelty of evil, suffering, and inhumanity. What a challenge to describe the causes, consequences, and details of the abyss of past and present human savagery yet find in it all some cause for hope!
Certainly readers of history and those who follow events in the world of the living, too, are aware that evil deeds and evil-doers have never diminished. They and the miseries that they created rise and flow like some grotesque miasma through our lives and through the annals of history; the evil of some men and women, and their large and small cruelties and crimes, are the appalling pools that we all must wade through if we are to understand the past, and thus ourselves.
Suddenly, amidst the inhumanity, injustice, cruelty, violence, and hatred one finds a gem; a glistening thing of beauty, compassion, selflessness. We grab at it, wipe it off, put it in our pockets, and display it on the mantels of our work and souls to show everyone that, see!- we are not all so awful after all and, even further–that some who are awful can and have been redeemed.
The world of the historian then is a world of study, built necessarily on an approach to the past that is founded solidly on love of life and a disciplined self-honesty. We follow the truth as best we can and arrive at conclusions (and build explanations and theories) that are supported by evidence. But there are other things, too. There is hope.
The “world” of the historian must involve hope. The best histories show a true appreciation of life, of people, and of the difficulties they faced. And when (or if) they overcame their particular challenges, rise above some horror or war (or some other nightmarish thing) these folks ought to be celebrated; how they coped, how they persevered, how and why they may have failed, why they did what they did. If our subject(s) failed we should explain why, and talk about the cost and even speculate about if and how such horrors might have been avoided (or prevented or stopped or interdicted). Historians ought to be extremely sensitive to the errors and casualties of the past because helping the living to avoid the mistakes of the past is an important part of our “world.”
One of the finest American poets of World War Two was Randall Jarrell. He could write a novel, or a history, and tell an important story in only several lines that otherwise, in prose, might require several hundred thousands. This is the mark of the greatest poets. Much of poetry is about our human need and desire for connections. We need to know that we are not alone.
Here is the entirety of Jarrell’s poem called “Little Friend, Little Friend” (1945). It is encompassing, fundamental, brilliant.
. . . . Then I heard the bomber call me in: ‘Little Friend, Little Friend, I got two engines on fire. Can you see me, Little Friend?’
I said ‘I’m crossing right over you. Let’s go home.'”
Jarrell doesn’t tell us if the bomber and its crew (and their escort) survived. He only tells us that on that journey home the wounded crew in their burning plane was not alone. These haunting, disturbing lines are somehow triumphant, and comforting. The reaction of the stunned reader invariably must be… “I hope they made it home!” Isn’t it extraordinary that one of the finest poems of WW2 has only three lines?
Is there some aspect of the historian’s world that involves hope? The answer must be Yes.
If Pirenne and Bloch are correct in their affirmation of the value of humanity then, somehow, we must walk in the same path. The expression of the truth, the illustration and illumination of people and events, is an affirmation of humanity. If Pirenne and Bloch are right, and they are, that life is of the utmost value then it is part of our “world,” too, to affirm, explain, and defend this critically important concept.
The progress of humanity is built upon the successes and failures of previous generations. This is an undeniable truth of the linear quality of our too short lives. Understanding the near or distant past illustrates for the living lessons learned by those who have faced similar challenges; the continuum of humanity is built on lessons learned, forgotten, misunderstood, and ignored.
Since history is always active, that is, history is always being “made” or is endlessly occurring – it is almost impossible to understand wider issues, bigger themes in which we find ourselves, our fellows, our country and our planet. Events in which we are a part are sometimes so immense and long in development that only an understanding of previous events can provide crucial insights into those of the present. The greatest historians then, like Pirenne and Bloch, in studying, analyzing and writing of the past, and thus contributing to an understanding of people and events in the present time are in service to humanity. This works both ways: an insightful understanding of the living cannot help but assist in understanding those who are no longer alive. How can we talk about, write about, even judge people living or dead without trying our best to empathize with and comprehend people?
In another episode of Chopped a young woman chef named “Ashley” was unable to prepare pickled pig’s feet to the satisfaction of the judges. She was “chopped” in the first round. Chef Ashley said, “That’s why I love cooking, there’s always something new to be learned.” Like the Chef’s world of innumerable ingredients (and combinations), recipes, and styles, ours is an ever-expanding field of knowledge that must include a love of learning.
The “world” of the great historian is one of love of humanity and love of learning. If the historian has one but not the other, he or she then is something other than a proper historian.
Rabbi Harold Kushner’s introduction to Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) summarizes the importance of hope. Frankl, a brilliant Jewish Viennese psychotherapist had been arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. In such an appalling place so high in the pantheon of sites of human cruelty and suffering hope could not readily be found in abundance–but it was there.
“He (Frankl) describes poignantly those prisoners who gave up on life, who had lost all hope for a future and were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope, lack of something to live for.”
The historian’s “world” is also one of duty. We have a duty to our forebears to tell their stories and to learn from them as best we can. We have a duty to keep the memory of heroes and villains and the experiences of everyday people alive. And then we have to analyze it all, explain it, present it, and share it with others for their knowledge (and perhaps even entertainment). Someone must keep the light of the past burning; somebody has to read the old books, and cull the important bits from them. We’re meant to tell the stories and help the living as best we can by providing for them an illumination of the past!
One of the finest poems about the Civil War is Donald Davidson’s “Lee in the Mountains.” It’s a haunting, beautiful achievement. A segment:
And Lee is in the mountains now, beyond Appomattox,
Listening long for voices that will never speak
Again; hearing the hoofbeats that come and go and fade
Without a stop, without a brown hand lifting
The tent-flap, or a bugle call at dawn,
Or ever on the long white road the flag
Of Jackson’s quick brigades. I am alone,
Trapped, consenting, taken at last in mountains.
We may be feeble, tired, and even overwhelmed but there is that duty. There is that duty and pleasure to discover/rediscover and understand and to make it all relevant somehow for today. We absolutely must learn the lessons of the past; there is no other way to avoid, if at all possible, the old mistakes.
Lee and Jackson and Lincoln are gone, all now outside of time. The determined blue and gray soldiers and their bitter guns are silent sentinels now on battlefields across the land. Davidson’s description of Lee is a poignant thing. It’s an emotionally heavy poem, and for those who know the history, all the more so. Stonewall’s “quick brigades” are dispersed, disappeared. The poet can invoke them, but only the historian can tell their stories and, in a sense, “bring them back” out of the darkness and nothingness of time gone by. There is too much of events and character to be learned from all of these people to ever let them go to nothingness.
In a historian’s “world” nihilism is an impossibility.
In a September, 1870, letter to Charles Marshall, his former aide-de-camp, Robert E. Lee in summing up his many years of experience chose an inspirational message. The War had been over then five years. There was not much time left, and Lee was aware of his failing health. This quote and the promise of hope that it provides has not gone unnoticed since his death a month after he wrote it. Despite everything he had been through, the loss of the war and of the old South and the Confederacy itself, Lee focused on wider themes and concluded with a message of positivity that is now, much like the General himself, timeless and outside of time.
“My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”
The present is a fleeting mist, the future but a dream and hope. What remains then is history; everything is history. It is the foundation of hope.
I will never compete on Chopped. I can find the best ingredients, prepare and present them with attractive colors, depth and balanced aromas and flavors. I can sauté, steam, stew, and simmer. I can select a good, appropriate wine. I can plate and serve a fine meal. I am not a chef, but I know how to cook.
Daniel Mallock is the author of the forthcoming book An Essential American Friendship: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution (Feb. 2016)
Title quote from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. (Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.)Scridb filter