Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Artillery of Gettysburg (and Antietam)


Before I started my study of the Battle of Gettysburg, I spent a lot of time studying another battle, this one in Maryland, Antietam (Sharpsburg). (Artillery played an important role at the Battle of Antietam.) I always thought it would have been the final major battle of the American Civil War if nearly any Gen'l other than the overly cautious McClellan had been in command of the Army of the Potomac. Like other incompetent army commanders, he fed his troops in piecemeal, and as a result accomplished nothing more than getting a lot of people killed, when he could easily have routed and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia with a proper plan using his entire army in even a slightly more coordinated way. He almost accomplished the destruction of Lee's army, even with this utterly flawed approach to this battle. Had A.P. Hill not arrived when he did and crushed Burnside's sure to be successful attack on Lee's right, I think Lee would have been rolled up and defeated soundly. War over.

An interesting thing happened regarding artillery, and it's accuracy, at Antietam. During the middle phase of the battle, Lee and Longstreet were conferring with D.H. Hill, a division commander, on the rise behind the sunken road. Hill was on horseback, I think due to an injury, and both Lee and Longstreet asked him to "keep your distance from us, as you are mounted" (they had dismounted so as not to draw attention to themselves as officers). Sure enough, a Union artillery piece across Antietam Creek noticed Hill and fired once, taking Hill's horse's front legs off. This an over 1,000 yard shot, and not particularly good or remarkable. All were amused at Hill's uncomfortable seat on a two-legged horse; people were inured to the destruction of animals during that war.

And that's about all I know about Civil War artillery, although I do know the different types of rounds they fired, and the tactical situations that demanded the use of each type of round. Artillery was very accurate, and at long range, more so than a lay person like me would have imagined smooth bore guns could be.

Which brings me to Bradley Gottfried's "The Artillery of Gettysburg", which I am reading now.

If you read the reviews on amazon.com from people who didn't hate the book, the recurring themes are that this is a highly technical book, and not a book you should read at the beginning of your study of the battle. I agree.

The narrative is completely artillery-centric, and follows the timeline of the battle from day one to day three, minute by minute. You need to have a pretty good understanding of what happened on all three days to appreciate this book, because it assumes you have that - not much is explained about the why's of infantry deployment, each day's assaults, the ground, etc.. If you don't know what happened on Oak Hill on the first day, for example, or why McGilvery ordered Bigelow to sacrifice his battery at the Trostle farm after the route of Sickles misdeployed corps on the second day, and why Bigelow agreed that it was the only viable course, this book ain't for you. You need a command of both the details and high points of the battle for this book to be comprehensible.

That said, what a jewel of a book this is. I'm learning about the intricacies of counter-battery fire, the skill required in choosing the ground on which to deploy artillery, and the consequences of choosing wrong. The tactical decisions a battery commander had to make, weighing the likelihood of one's own ammunition being exploded in a close hit versus the time it takes to bring each round up to the piece from a safer location in the rear. Nothing is easy in this artillery business is what I'm getting, and there is no other book out there that I know of that explains artillery operations in such excruciating detail. I'm gaining a renewed respect for Edward Porter Alexander, the de-facto head of Lee's artillery. His job was HARD.  Pendleton, the nominal artillery chief, was a dope; you should read Alexander's "Fighting for the Confederacy" before this book, BTW. It's great.

Why read this book? You'll understand the thinking behind every artillery deployment and action at Gettysburg, at a level of detail that's, well, highly detailed. That may or may not be valuable to you. Why else? I'm hopeful it will shed light on the real reasons for the outcomes of the huge Confederate barrage that preceded the Picket-Pettigrew-Trimble assault (or Longstreet's assault) on the third day, better known as "Pickett's Charge".

I certainly understand why Lee thought this barrage would be effective. It wasn't. It's been said that the barrage was heard many, many dozens of miles away on the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863. It was an ambitious undertaking. I don't think I've seen it adequately analyzed and explained elsewhere. Maybe this book will do that. That's why I'm wading through it.

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