Comments on the Gettysburg First Day
Deb of Texas writes: I recently heard a distinguished author/speaker at our round table say General Lee went to Gettysburg strictly to forage for his army. I had never heard that. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this.
Joe Ryan replies: Take a look at the videos displayed on the website, under Joe Ryan's Battlewalks, Approaches to Gettysburg and Gettysburg The Second Day. They answer your question the long way. My short answer to the speaker's statement that General Lee went to Pennsylvania to forage, is that it is silly.
Of course Lee's army appropriated anything that could be moved—livestock, wagons, harness, tools, horseshoes, clothing, flour, grain, and money—but the caloric value of the food products gained by the foraging was plainly cancelled out by the calories expended by the men and animals not only marching to and from Gettysburg but also in fighting a horrific battle there. Even assuming that the speaker offered some objective evidence of the fact that the army gained a substantial surplus in the exchange, the surplus cannot possibly justify in terms of military science, much less in terms of Confederate war policy, Lee's marching his army to Gettysburg and fighting there the battle that determined the fate of Virginia, and with it the fate of the Confederacy.
Oh but the battle simply happened by accident during the course of the foraging, the speaker might say. In other words, from the start (which means from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock) Lee meant to march his army of 80,000 men and 20,000 animals in a two hundred mile loop because he expected to gain for it more food than it would consume. Simply ridiculous.
Tim, a descendent of a soldier in the 44th Alabama Regiment at Gettysburg, inquires, regarding the battle’s first day: How did Edward Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps manage to get to Gettysburg eight hours late in the first place? In other words, what route was he ordered to take and by whom?
Joe Ryan replies: The answer must depend upon reasonable inferences to be drawn from the facts established by the evidence. In his battle report, Johnson expressly states: “On June 29, in obedience to orders, I countermarched my division to Greenville, thence via Scotland, to Gettysburg, not arriving in time, however to participate in the battle of the 1st.” Richard Ewell. in his report, states merely this: “I. . . was starting on the 29th for [Harrisburg] when ordered by [Lee] to join the main body of the army at Cashtown, near Gettysburg.”
It is an undisputed fact that, on the morning of the 29th, Johnson’s division was strung along the road between Carlisle and Shippensburg, and that between Johnson and Rodes’s division was the corps trains. In complying with the order he states came to him somehow from Lee, Ewell had to decide whether to have the trains and Johnson’s division follow Rodes down the east side of the South Mountain toward Cashtown, or have Johnson and the trains move south down the west side of the South Mountain to the road between Cashtown and Chambersburg; or, in the alternative, have Johnson take the trains, on the road between Shippensburg and Arndtsville, over the table top of the South Mountain.
Since we have nothing in evidence that is credible concerning what exact instructions Lee actually communicated to Ewell, and precisely when, we must base our judgment of the reason for Johnson’s late arrival on the fact that Ewell probably ordered Johnson to march south, ignore the road from Shippensburg to Arndtsville, and cut into the road from Chambersburg leading to Cashtown. It was the taking of this route that caused Johnson’s division to arrive on the field too late.
Tim also offers the observation that, in his view, Lee at Gettysburg was gambling on a one shot winner-take-all-attempt to end the war in Pennsylvania.
Joe Ryan replies: I don’t think so. General Lee had designed a classic “encounter” battle that was intended to crush a piece of the enemy’s army, throwing that piece back, inducing the enemy to retreat to the natural line of defense offered by Pipe Creek. In this projected scenario, as the enemy was assuming the defensive at the Pipe Creek line, Lee intended to march his army south on the Emmittsburg road, turning the Pipe Creek line, which would have caused the enemy to continue their retrograde movement closer to Washington, perhaps falling back into its forts, in which case Lee would occupy Frederick and then advance. General Lee hoped in this way to bring his army up to the Washington forts on the 4th of July. Then, most certainly, he would have warmly embraced the gamble of a winner-take-all struggle for possession of the Union Capital. In such case, the concurrent fall of Vicksburg to Grant would have been irrelevant.
Tony Wood of England remarks:
I am a family lawyer from England and have visited Gettysburg several times now. I agree with your view of Ewell's performance. As you walk Culp's Hill you realize how crucial it was and yet the historians seem to still dwell on Cemetery Ridge. I think you are right that Jackson probably would have taken the hill and that the tide of the encounter would have washed closer to Washington.
Joe Ryan replies: Yes, the historians and Civil War writers dwell on Cemetery Ridge; I think the reason is that romance sells books, and there is the problem of breaking loose from the herd—the silly story line of the battle happening by accident and that Meade was actually in danger of losing his army in the struggle. These people are lazy, working in a profession where the digging deep into primary sources is apparently deemed to be beneath them.
Nicholas Hollis writes:
At the General Longstreet Recognition Project (link), we have been seeking to establish some objective truth in relation to Longstreet's actions on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and appreciate the clarity your Gettysburg videos offer on the subject.
Joe Ryan replies: The historical myth of the Battle of Gettysburg is now so seeped in the literature—literature layered by generations of writers repeating the story line—that it will probably take another 150 years to get the public's mind aligned to the objective truth of the matter. It seems to me the story line probably developed out of the politics of professional historians, from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.