Was the Confederate Victory at Gettysburg Inevitable?

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time.  Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago;

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

Hattip to Sir Winston Churchill.

As we prepare to observe the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, a question arises as to whether the shattering Confederate victory was inevitable.  I believe it was for the following reasons:

1.  Lee and Jackson-The most formidable military partnership in American military history, Jackson and Lee by Gettysburg had perfected the teamwork that made them matchless on the battlefield.  With Lee providing strategic insight and bold plans, Jackson was the perfect man to execute Lee’s will on the battlefield.  As Lee said of him: Straight as the needle to the pole he advances to the execution of my purpose. When fired upon by his own men by accident in the gloom of night at Chancellorsville, it was fortunate indeed for the Confederacy that although several members of his party were killed and wounded, he emerged unscathed.  Lee and Jackson hoped in their Northern invasion to produce a defeat so decisive that it would destroy Northern morale and end the War.

2.  Jackson and Stuart-The grim Cromwellian warrior of God Stonewall Jackson and the spiritual descendant of the cavaliers, Jeb Stuart, were, surprisingly enough, good friends.  After Brandy Station, Lee was concerned that Stuart was stung by the criticism of the Southern newspapers, and that might cause him to attempt one of his patented spectacular raids, precisely not what Lee desired in the forthcoming invasion of the North.  Lee sent Jackson to talk with Stuart.  Stuart describes the interview in his memoir, one of the classic pieces of literature to come out of the Second American Revolution, Riding the Raid (1880):

Initially I was perplexed as “Stonewall” described the plan of the coming campaign and that General Lee wished to use my cavalry as a coordinated attack force with General Jackson’s corps.  Then I realized this was General Lee’s characteristically polite manner of telling me that I was to follow Jackson’s orders in the coming campaign.  I will not pretend that I was not chagrined although I gave no outward sign of the irritation I felt to my friend “Stonewall”.  As it turned out this was yet another example of the brilliance of General Lee, the greatest soldier of our age.  If not for this order, I would not have been on hand to quickly scatter General Buford’s cavalry during the early morning of July 1, and General Jackson would not have been aware of how distant the Union infantry corps were from the all important high ground south of the town.  After that day I never entertained the slightest doubt as to the decisions of General Lee, even if they ran directly counter to my own opinions.

3.  The Hardluck XI- I have always thought that the XI Corps receives a disproportionate amount of blame for the Union loss at Gettysburg.  Any of the Union corps marching on to the battlefield as the XI Corps did probably would have fared as poorly, however that task fell to the same Corps that had recently been routed by Jackson at Chancellorsville, and hardly two months later they met the same fate at Gettysburg.  It was the luck of the draw that the XI Corps was at the head of the marching order that day and the first Union Corps to reach the field.  With the loss of McPherson’s Ridge, courtesy of Stuart, Jackson was free to march through Gettysburg and launch a furious assault on the XI Corps at noon as it attempted to deploy on Cemetery Hill.  After a half hour of fighting the XI Corps collapsed and headed southeast on the Baltimore Pike.  Seeing Union reinforcements arriving from the southeast, Jackson made no effort to pursue, but contented himself with seizing, completely uncontested, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Big Round Top and fortifying these immensely strong by nature positions.

4.  George Gordon Meade-Appointed to command the Army of the Potomac just two days prior to the battle, Meade has gone down in history as the man who lost the decisive battle of the War.  It is hard not to have sympathy for him.  He had indicated prior to his appointment that he did now want the job and he now had it under the worst possible circumstances, with no time to put his own stamp on the Army or come up with a plan of campaign on his own.  My sympathy does not extend to his decision to attack the now heavily fortified Confederate positions on July 2, 1863.  Meade had enough experience of the War to realize that a frontal assault on fortifications held by veteran troops of the Army of Northern Virginia was merely a colorful way to commit suicide.  The men making the attacks certainly did, many of them pinning notes with their names and home addresses on them so their next of kin could be informed of their deaths.  After the debacle at Fredericksburg this decision by Meade, albeit under heavy pressure from Washington to do something, was truly unforgivable.  Meade would have done better to withdraw and keep Lee’s army under observation, harassing Confederate foraging parties.  This would have forced Lee to eventually leave his fortified nest due to lack of supplies.  Instead Meade’s attacks cost him 12,000 casualties in exchange for less than 3,000 Confederate casualties.  Jackson favored a counter-attack, but Lee decided that he would wait and see what Meade would do the next day.

5.  Council of War-The Union council of war has entered into the national memory of the United States as a fever nightmare.  Meade polled his corps commanders as to what the Army should do.  Half were for retreat and half for fighting,  Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, whose II Corps had been held in reserve on July 2, 1863, vociferously declared that it was impossible for the Army of the Potomac to retreat from a major battle on Northern soil, and that if it did the bottom would fall out of Northern morale and the War would be lost.  He gave his opinion that the Union assaults had been piece meal and uncoordinated during the day.  That an assault on Cemetery Ridge, preceded by a concentrated Union artillery barrage, could crush the Confederate center and give the Union a smashing victory.  At the end of the Council of War Meade sat in silence for five minutes.  Finally he said that Hancock was right.  A retreat from this battle was as good as running up the white flag, admitting that Lee and his men were unbeatable and the Union was dissolved. Meade ordered that every battery the Army had commence firing on Cemetery Ridge at 1:00 PM.  At 2:00 PM Hancock’s II Corps and Slocum’s XII Corps, approximately 22,000 men, would attack Cemetery Ridge.  Slocum as senior general was offered the command of the attack.  Slocum demurred, stating that it was Hancock’s idea and he would be happy to serve under him, although he doubted the wisdom of the assault.

6.  Hancock’s Charge-Longstreet’s I Corps was holding Cemetery Ridge and he almost cheered after the Union bombardment began, realizing that it presaged an infantry assault that had no possibility of success.  Longstreet ordered his men to lay down and take cover.  His artillery made no response to the ferocious Union barrage, Longstreet realizing the gunners would have better targets soon.

Hancock spread the word that he would be in the forefront of the attack and that he would ask no man to go where he did not.  One of his staff officers objected that Hancock would surely be killed,  Hancock responded laconically: There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.  The courage of Hancock and his 20,000 has been lauded endlessly in the United States, a frequent subject of Remembrance Day speeches.  All of these accolades are completely deserved.  Hancock was superb that day, his complete contempt for death serving as an inspiration to all who followed him that bloody day.  He entirely deserves the fifty foot statue that marks where he fell on Cemetery Ridge, leading his men in a breakthrough that was miraculous, even though the Confederates repulsed it after hard fighting.

The courage of Hancock and his braves however, does not alter the fact that the charge was military madness.  The Union sustained 8,000 casualties in exchange for 1500 Confederates.  However, the repulse of Hancock’s Charge was only a prelude to the true Union disaster to come that day.

7.  Longstreet’s Charge-There is a persistent legend that Longstreet’s men began to chase after the retreating survivors of Hancock’s Charge without orders.  That is untrue.  Even as the Union force was advancing towards Cemetery Ridge, Longstreet was issuing orders for a general advance by his Corps against the Union center, shielded by the retreating Union attack force after it was repulsed.  It is true however, that Longstreet made his charge without obtaining permission from General Lee.  Lee had obtained a note from Longstreet telling him his intentions, but before Lee could respond he saw Longstreet’s Corps advancing screaming the rebel yell.  Lee instantly ordered Jackson to charge also.

Now an extremely peculiar thing happened.  About one in four Union troops simply began to run from the Confederates.  Many books have been written attempting to explain why this occurred, all of them ultimately unsatisfying.  Perhaps it simply was the fact that many men in the Army of the Potomac were just at the end of their rope.  In the past seven months they had been badly beaten at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and now at Gettysburg.  It was all too much for otherwise brave men who believed their lives were being wasted in bloody engagements they simply could not win.  Lee ordered Stuart to circle around the left of the Union army in an attempt to cut off the routes of retreat.  This movement increased the number of Union troops taking to their heels.

Much hard fighting remained against Union regiments that did not run, but by the end of the day, one-third of the Union army was in full flight and the other two-thirds were stunned prisoners.

8.  Lee and the Fourth of July– Lee of course realized that deep in Union territory he could not feed and guard a mass of Union prisoners not much inferior in numbers to his own force.  He could not tend their wounded, having all he could do to tend his own.  Lee decided to parole the entire Union force on their promise not to take up arms again until properly exchanged for a like number of Confederate prisoners.  He had this message printed out at a Gettysburg printer’s shop that was given to each Union soldier:

To the Officers and Men of the Army of the Potomac:

Today is the Fourth of July, a day sacred to all Americans.  On this day you are being given your liberty.  It is my sincere hope that this cruel war will soon be over and all Americans will be able to live in peace and amity on this continent.  I salute you for your courage and your service to your country. 

Robert E. Lee,

Commanding General, Army of Northern Virginia

The note was a masterstroke as it was considered a gesture of extreme generosity, and helped rouse anti-war sentiment throughout the North. Lee was a generous man, but his action clearly served his ends.  The Union would have to feed and care for a large force that was effectively out of the War, and Lee was able to immediately begin his march on Washington.

9.  Aftermath-Lee got his wish that Gettysburg was the last big battle of the War.  Draft riots sprang up in New York City and spread to many of the major cities of the North.  Lee harried the tattered remnants of the Army of the Potomac as Lee announced that Washington was his target.  Whether Lee could have taken Washington is very much open to question, but that quickly became only of academic interest for historians to debate.  The military coup executed by General Hooker placed Lincoln under arrest and Hooker began negotiations with Lee, with Washington riven by factional fighting among Union troops, and the entire North aghast at how quickly the wheel of fortune had turned against them.  Hooker’s coup was suppressed, but not before he had conveyed Lincoln into captivity with Lee’s army.  Grant, summoned from his victory at Vicksburg, was desperately putting together a new army in Philadelphia, when a completely over-whelmed Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin announced a ninety-day truce for direct talks with Jefferson Davis.   The negotiations would prove long and bitter, but neither the North nor the South had the heart for a renewal of hostilities.  A treaty recognizing the independence of the Confederacy was signed on December 1, 1863.  President Lincoln was then immediately released.  He resumed his office and renounced the treaty, but a clear majority in Congress made it plain that the War was over and it was not going to be resumed.

10.  Historical Inevitability-It is easy to think of a fact pattern where the outcome of Gettysburg could have been reversed.  If Jackson had been killed at Chancellorsville for example or Stuart had been absent on the first day, and a myriad of other alternate history scenarios.  However, based on the facts as they existed on July 1, 1863, it is hard to see how Gettysburg was going to be anything other than a resounding Confederate victory.

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  1. I am desperately trying to figure out just what the heck you’re talking about. Is this a book? Historical re-enactment fiction? Seriously…you post this without any clue as to what you’re talking about…I am highly confused.

  2. The fantastic forays of your mind affirm the adage that there is a thin line between genius and madness.

    I enjoyed it immensely, Don! Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Evil, Be Thou My Good - BigPulpit.com

  4. As someone for whom alternative history is a (somewhat guilty) pleasure and who has been one of Faulkner’s 14 year old Southern boys for 45 years, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece. It is actually much better than Vanauken’s and Fortschen/Ginrich’s versions — and they are pretty darn good!

  5. With France and England then inevitably having recognized the Confederacy, how accurate do you think the scenario is that the North would have become a German ally and The Great War of the early 20th Century would have been fought as horrifically on American soil as on European?

  6. Custer Gatling guns besides, that question was one I would hear in the AF in the context of ‘ifs, and ‘ands.’
    From my readings, the twist the red men had on Custer, mg’s may not have been enough.