Sunday, December 12, 2010

Fighting for the Confederacy

I bought E.P. Alexander's Fighting for the Confederacy years ago for his insightful chapter on the battle of Gettysburg. By 1863, Alexander, then a Colonel, was Lee's de facto chief of artillery, the nominal chief, General Pendleton having  lost Lee's confidence. Alexander saw to the disposition of all the artillery west and south of the town prior to the massive bombardment on the 3rd prior to the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble (PPT) assault that afternoon (aka "Pickett's charge"), some 70-odd individual pieces.

Union Army II Corps artillerists celebrating the victory.

This is a great book, very candid in it's conclusions, and written in a chatty, modern style quite different from the typical stilted prose of the era. Refreshing and readable. Highly recommended for anyone of any knowledge level of the Civil War.

While many are critical of Lee's attack on July 3rd, Alexander is the only writer I know of who, while also critical, offers a plausible alternative. He advocates for a militarily sound attack on the salient at the northernmost section of the Union line, on Cemetery Hill.

PPT assault, as conducted on July 3rd. The salient Alexander refers to is that bit right under the "C" in Cemetery Hill, north end of the line
The assault as executed resulted in the assaulting columns coming under enfilade artillery fire during the mile long approach to the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, which was very costly. Further, as the the attack concentrated, both Confederate flanks were attacked, their left first by Ohioans, their right by Stannard's Vermonters shortly after, again with devastating effect. These flank attacks were only possible because of the relatively straight orientation of Meade's line at the point of attack, allowing these units to be safely thrown forward on Lee's flanks, and the enfilade fire possible by Union Artillery posted to the south. (This is my analysis of the attack as it happened, not Alexanders).

How is Alexander's idea militarily sound? First, attacking a salient takes away the enfilade fire Lee's attacking troops endured, and instead subjects them mostly to much less destructive defilade fire, both by artillery and infantry. Instead, the attacking force has the ability to enfilade the defenders. Second, the attackers can and will "squeeze" the salient from three sides.In the American Civil War, defensive salients never fared well. See Spotsylvania.

So why didn't Lee attack at the salient on July 3rd? Certainly, he knew all about salients, how to fight with external lines, enfilade and defilade fire - any professional military officer of the time knew all this cold. I think there were several reasons he opted for Longstreet to handle this charge, and to attack further south at a less desirable position.

First, A.P. Hill, Lee's third corps commander was completely absent during most of the battle, sidelined due to illness. There is much speculation as to what that illness was. Lee saw fit to allow Longstreet to control large portions of Hill's corps during the PPT assault. I don't believe Lee had confidence in allowing Hill to direct an assault, which he would have had to do if Lee had attacked the salient. The salient assault would fallen to Hill, and General Ewell, second corps commander to execute.

Second, Ewell had failed to assault Cemetery Hill on the first day of the battle, much to Lee's (and others) dismay. Most historians agree that Cemetery Hill is the key to the Union position, and taking it on the first day would likely have necessitated a Union withdrawal to the Pipe Creek position to the south.

Third, Longstreet had nearly defeated the Union army, in detail (Lee's vision for this campaign from the start), in his en echelon attack the day before.

I think Lee only had confidence in Longstreet to manage the attack, and that he thought the attack would succeed, if it had been executed and supported as Lee ordered. Lee never wrote about the war, but he did say this just past midnight on July 3, 1863:

"I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Picketts's division of Virginians did today, in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been (my italics) -- but for some reason, not yet fully explained to me, were not -- we would have held the position, and the day would have been ours."

Who were the supports? Anderson's Division, and Wilcox's Brigade, neither of which stepped off that day.

Lee's plan was not executed as he ordered on July 3rd. Would it have succeeded had it been? I think it's possible. We'll never know.

Would Alexander's attack against the salient have succeeded? Perhaps, had Longstreet directed it. By Lee would never have slighted Hill and Ewell by allowing that.

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