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Posted on Mar 22, 2004 in Armchair Reading

Early’s Assault: The Confederacy’s Last Gasp?

By Mark H. Walker

Player notes for Lee at Gettysburg : The Battle for Cemetery Ridge

There is a small wooded knoll on Cemetery Ridge. Indistinct in form, yet momentous in the chronology of the Civil War. It was on this knoll, a knoll defended by the Union regiment of General Webb, that a handful of men from General Picket’s division briefly breached the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Many historians mark this breach, and its subsequent repulse, as the high water mark of the Confederacy. The last, best gasp, of the rebelling states.

In fact, that gasp came two days before, when the Confederates were unable (or unwilling) to dislodge the Union troops from their recently occupied positions on Cemetery Ridge. Picket’s charge would not have been needed if Ewell and Hill’s Corps had routed the remnants of Reynold’s and Howard’s formations on the first day of battle. The key to Gettysburg was not the desperate charge of Picket’s division, but the fighting of July 1st. It is this premise prompted not only this article, but this issue’s game.

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The Antwerp Option

Historians argue that if Adolph Hitler had limited the objectives for his Ardennes offensive in 1944, he might have been able to alter the course of the Second World War. Instead of the lesser objective of capturing Antwerp and disrupting the Allied supply lines, Hitler hoped to trap all the Allied Armies east of the Meuse , and destroy them. Jeff Davis and the Confederate leadership had no such dilutions.

Make no mistake, Davis hoped Lee’s invasion would do great things. General U.S. Grant had bottled up the army of Confederate General John Pemberton in Vicksburg , and it didn’t take a military historian to understand the dire consequences of Vicksburg ‘s imminent capture. Perhaps Davis hoped that Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania would relieve the pressure on Vicksburg . Or possibly a Confederate Army marching through Pennsylvania would be the straw that broke the back of the Norther’s will to fight. Maybe Great Britain would recognize the rebel states and send much needed munitions, materials, and even their mighty Navy.

The words sound good, but the facts fail to bear them out. Grant had shut up Pemberton on May 17th. Lee’s didn’t move north until late June ?a period of six weeks; too much time to give a man like Grant. Furthermore, President Lincoln had other reserves he could throw into Lee’s path without pulling men from Grant’s Army.

Certainly the North was weary of the war, but in retrospect it seems unlikely anything short of the destruction of The Army of the Potomac would have prompted Lincoln to sue for peace. And the British? For two years they witnessed Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia, beat a procession of Union generals like a drum, but still the British sat on the fence. It seems unlikely that one more victory would sway them. Despite President Davis’s hopes, Lee’s army may have moved north with a simpler goal in mind ?the Army of Northern Virginia would have to fight somewhere in the summer of 1863, why not take the carnage, destruction, and pillaging that attended the clash of armies to the north? That, possibly more than any other reason, may be why Lee headed north in 1863. Headed north to a rendezvous of chance, and a battle that would decide the Civil War.

A Battle of Chance

No one chose to fight at Gettysburg . At least not at first. Lee’s army moved north, its corps separated by time and some distance. J.E.B. Stuart, who was ordered to screen Lee’s right flank (i.e. the flank facing the Army of the Potomac), found the Potomac river crossing he hoped to use occupied by Union soldiers. Stuart was forced to cross much further east than he wished, and instead of rapidly linking up with the eastern flank of Lee’s army, he remained out of contact for the better part of a week. Lee understood no news to be good news and believed the Hooker’s men to be south of the Potomac .

He was wrong. The Army of the Potomac , now under the leadership of General George Gordon Meade, had crossed the Potomac and was looking to give battle to the Confederates. When Lee learned of Meade’s crossing he ordered his dispersed corps to concentrate near the sleepy little town of Gettysburg , Pennsylvania . There was nothing special about Gettysburg , except that it sprouted roads that led to each of the Confederate corps.

About the same time as Lee ordered his units to concentrate at Gettysburg , Meade sent Buford’s cavalry division north to find Lee. Major General John F. Reynolds trailed the horse soldiers with three corps ?his own I Corps, Major General Oliver Otis Howard’s XI Corps, and Major General Dan Sickles’ III Corps, hoping to draw Lee’s army into a fight that the remainder of Meade’s troops would soon join. They weren’t disappointed.

For a Pair of Shoes

On the morning of July 1st, 1863 , the men of Major General Harry Heth’s division, A.P. Hill’s Corps, marched down the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg , looking to liberate some shoes rumored to be plentiful at the town’s shoe factory. They were greeted by voracious fire from two dismounted brigades of Buford’s division. The lead from the cavalrymen’s carbines delayed Heth’s men, forcing them to form battle lines and plan a prepared assault on Buford’s position.

A handful of mounted trooped approached Buford from Gettysburg , and as they closed Buford could make out the bearded face of General Reynolds. A fighter to the core, Reynolds agreed with Buford that the army should make a stand northwest of Gettysburg and sent couriers south to hasten his corps. The corps lead elements, the dusty veteran’s of Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s division, arrived moments before the Confederates renewed their assault.

Hurriedly, Wadsworth ‘s infantry relieved Buford’s dismounted cavalry, the horse soldiers pointing out likely Confederate avenues of advance and shoring up fencing to cover the infantrymen. Reynolds personally led the division’s Iron Brigade into the orchards of McPherson’s farm, squaring them off against one of Heth’s brigades. Tragically, a lone Rebel sniper, hidden in the loft of McPherson’s barn, shot Reynolds dead in his saddle. It mattered not. The old hands of the Iron Brigade went to work, firing, reloading, and firing again. Heth’s men came close, firing, ducking behind trees, laying prone, whatever they could do to mitigate the withering fire from the Federals, but try as they might, they couldn’t break the boys in blue.

Major General Abner Doubleday, who took command of I Corps when Reynolds died, fed his men into the fray as fast as they arrived. But it seemed that despite the reinforcements the Confederates kept up the pressure. By this time Hill had not only Heth’s division on the field but Pender’s as well, and the butternut and gray troops were putting enormous pressure of the Union line, but still it held? at least until Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s II Corps appeared.

Buford had known of the Confederates to the north of Gettysburg . In fact, he had placed two of his brigades on Carlisle road. And when Howard’s XI Corps arrived, Howard placed all but one of his divisions north of Gettysburg to meet Ewell’s Corps. The first southerners Howard’s men met were the veterans of Major General Robert Rode’s division. Initially the Federals stood their ground, matching the Confederates musket ball for musket ball, but Increasing pressure from Rodes, a renewed attack from Hill’s Corps and enfilading fire from Confederate cannon on Oak Ridge hill combined to force the Union troops back. Slowly at first, but when the second division of Ewell’s Corps ?Major General Jubal Early’s infantry? took the XI Corps in the flank, the retreat quickly turned ugly. Most of I corps managed to make it back to Cemetery Ridge in good order, but XI Corps, with Jubal Early” men hot on their heels, poured through Gettysburg and up to Cemetery Hill in a disorganized mess.

It was now late afternoon/early evening; Lee was on the field, and both sides were tired and severely bloodied. In retrospect, however, it appears that the Confederates were less tired and bloodied than their Union counterparts. Certainly Heth’s Division had been shot up and was recuperating west of Seminary Ridge. But the Union I Corps had been handled losses from which it would never recover. In fact, the corps would be disbanded the following winter. The Union XI Corps ?roughly handled by Ewell’s Corps? was still little more than armed rabble, milling about Cemetery Ridge. A thrust by Early’s division, supported by Rodes, could well have carried Culp’s Hill and washed down the length of Cemetery Ridge. But the attack never came, and although Lee suggested, Early procrastinated, and the Confederate patrols did little more than probe the remnants of the Iron Brigade dug in on Culp’s Hill. The crushing Rebel attack wasn’t to be, and the evening of July 1st slid into Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s delayed advance on the 2nd, a futile charge by Major General George Pickett’s infantry on the 3rd, and the surrender of the Confederate States of America in 1865. Can you do better? Why don’t you punch out the counters and see for yourself?

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