Lee on Day 1 – Gallagher & Nolan

Alright, someone asked for some controversy.  Let’s try this on for size.

Below are the concluding paragraphs from Alan T. Nolan’s and Gary Gallagher’s essays from Gallagher’s collection of essays on The First Day at Gettysburg [see Sources page].

Alan T. Nolan on Ewell and Lee:

“It is unhistoric to conclude that Ewell was necessarily wrong in his judgment.  His decision was reasonable in the circumstances, and that responds to the only historically appropriate question concerning Ewell’s conduct.

“One can only conclude that Lee’s movement across the Potomac was a grave strategic error.  In addition, in reference to the first day of the battle, there were significant command failures on Lee’s part that were destructive to the Confederate chances of victory at Gettysburg.”  [Nolan, pp. 28-29]

Gallagher, Gary W., and Nolan, Alan T., The First Day At Gettysburg, edited by Gary Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1992.  ISBN 0-87338-457-1 [pbk.]:

R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg, by Alan T. Nolan;

Gallagher on Ewell, Hill and Lee:

“Both A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell have suffered more than a century’s carping about their conduct on July 1, 1863.  Neither of them performed brilliantly; each worked in the immense shadow of Stonewall Jackson, whose greatest triumph remained vividly present in the minds of their fellow soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Hill did not cause the battle to be fought, nor did he or Ewell cost the South a more impressive victory.  At every crucial moment, Lee was on the field and able to manage events.  In the end, he more than any of his lieutenants controlled the first day’s action.  Anyone seeking to apportion responsibility for what transpired on the Confederate side on the opening day at Gettysburg should look first to the commanding general.”  [Gallagher p. 56]

Gallagher, Gary W., and Nolan, Alan T., The First Day At Gettysburg, edited by Gary Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1992.  ISBN 0-87338-457-1 [pbk.]:

Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg: A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell in a Difficult Debut, by Gary W. Gallagher

To what, exactly, do you think Gallagher and Nolan were referring?      Do you think they are correct in their assessment?

Please make use of the comments section for this post by using the link at the bottom that says “Leave a Comment”.  Readers should click on that link as well to read what others have written.  

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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14 Responses to Lee on Day 1 – Gallagher & Nolan

  1. wgdavis says:

    We find it difficult to believe that no one has a comment to make on this post. Certainly the implication that Lee made, at the least, a bad judgment call, if not several mistakes on the first day is not without controversy.

    Do the readers have any thoughts on this?

    • francis gallo says:

      I do have comments on this posting but I am hesitant to go forward with my own opinions for reasons any novice would have. However I do understand a few things pertaining to the behavior of Gen. Lee that are so well acknowledged as to be likely considered mere fluff in the context of serious discussion. But, at least in an effort to stimulate serious debate I am willing to bear what ridicule I may endure from my opinions in order read the well studied arguments of those of you who may be willing to share your discourse on the subject. My primary reference is to the orders Ewell received from Lee, vis; to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable. This directive is oft quoted, but incomplete,and has lead many of the naive readers of the history (such as myself) to the popular conclusion that Lee was speaking to Ewell as he had so often spoken to Jackson. The underlying connotation being that if you suggested Jackson light a match he would set a forest ablaze. However many overlook that Jackson and Ewell did indeed have a personal and military coexistence. If we now look at the directive given Ewell in it’s summation, vis; “but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army”, we see the caution attributed to the general conflict at the outset when Buford first came on the scene. It must be remembered that, from all I have read on the subject and seems should be obvious to all, that Gettysburg was not the site where a battle was desired, but rather where a battle was to be avoided. Meade himself set up headquarters outside Taneytown MD. rejecting the idea of moving forward to Gettysburg. Lee’s directive to Ewell was an echo of his orders to Buford to avoid a general engagement.
      General Lee was, without argument, a brilliant military strategist. His maneuvers from Fredericksburg to outgeneral Hooker at Chancelloresville were brilliant. On a personal note I am so moved by Jackson’s performance on this occasion, and that of Lee’s, that I maintain my belief in the resurrection in hopes that I may confer with these men.
      Back to the subject at hand. On this first day there occurs a conflict at G’burg which no one seems to want to escalate into a general engagement. Buford holds off Heth’s command until Reynold’s arrives from the south. I truly believe Buford did not want to be engaged in an all out battle and that the aggression of the Confederate army and the smell of battle enticed him some what. However, Lee had instructed him to avoid a general engagement until the whole army was there. The arrival that morning and the afternoon ( we don’t have to reiterate the participants just to impress our readers here) resulted in a disorganized retreat by the Union army which landed them on Cemetery Hill, coincidentally the best ground from which to defend the army. The strategy at this point, after the rout from Herr Ridge and McPerson’s ridge and Oak Hill was defense. Defense was the optimal posture for any arm but more so for an army outnumbered as Lee’s was. Take in to account that Lee was virtually “blind” due to the absence of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, he was effectively shooting from the hip, not knowing the strength of force he was facing. So General Lee was assessing minute by minute the progression of the day’s activity without the advantage of certain reconnaissance of what was a mobile force concentrating on the region in the general area of Gettysburg, PA. In light of the apparent “victory” as taken by the Confederate troops and the rout of the Union through town and on up to Cemetery Hill, I would imagine Lee’s sense would be to not expend Ewell’s second corps on a retreating army. I can only imagine Lee as thinking how he could best utilize the 2nd corps to envelope a retreating army not realizing how powerful the position of the Union Line would become virtually overnight. It was a matter of luck over timing and in this light Ewell’s position paled in significance against the movements of the Union Army on Cemetery Ridge and Little Roundtop. Save for Sickles jackassery at the Peach Orchard the Union Line was unassailable (save for the glorious moment I have mentioned in a previous posting). Ewell really acted to no effect in the overall course of the battle. The critical hinge was the overconfidence of General Lee, that his army was virtually immortal. His refusal to accept Longstreet’s counsel was the death blow to the Army of Northern Virginia and General Lee knew it, as surmised in his apologies to the returning troops. A commander doesn’t say “It’s all amy fault.” in order to buck up his men for another charge. As he watched from his view point on Seminary Ridge his brave troops reduced to a pink mist by Union artillery on the third day of the battle, I doubt his strategic use of Ewell was weighing very heavily on his mind.

      • wgdavis says:

        Actually, Francis, your comment is an excellent analysis that draws an interesting conclusion: neither general wanted to fight at Gettysburg. Indeed, Meade favored Pipe Creek, wanting to draw Lee out of Pennsylvania [even if only a few miles], and with an apparently more reliable picture of the terrin at Pipe Creek than at Gettysburg [Did he, as the movie ortrayed, ask his Generals if the ground was good to fight upon?]

        I suggest Lee wanted to fight in Pennsylvania and wanted to fight a defensive battle, but he was forced into fighting it the way he did because of the absence of Stuart and the need to provide a safe route for him to rejoin the ANV.

        As for Ewell, I think the only reason Lee included Culp’s Hill was the terrain factor of it providing high ground on the left of any ANV force approaching Cemetery Hill from the east. It is similar in situation to the way Sickles laid his guns along the north side of Wheatfield Lane where they wreaked havoc on the Brigades of Kershaw, Semmes, and G. T. Anderson.

        Frankly, I think Ewell made the right call.

  2. wgdavis says:

    Sticking to the specifics here, why do you think Lee added the cautionary “…don’t bring on a general engagement.”? Don’t you think that is somewhat contradictory? He told Harry Heth the same thing that morning.

  3. Dan says:

    I’m very late to this post (having only recently discovered this outstanding blog). However, here’s my take as to what might be considered errors on Lee’s part on July 1:

    1. Despite his instructions to Heth, the Confederates had won a significant victory on the first day of the battle – routing the 1st and 11th Corps. and capturing the town. He had not, of course, destroyed the Army of the Potomac – but he was victorious, and, had the battle ended there, ANV would have added another link to the chain of thrashings that had begun at Fredericksburg and continued with Chancellorsville. Does the victory end the war? Probably not. But it does further strengthen the Confederacy’s cause, further demoralize the war-weary North, and put the ANV in position to dictate the place and time of the next battle – assuming that they could have procured provisions. So the first possible error is in continuing the battle.

    2. The second error is, perhaps, more of a flaw in management style relating to Lee’s communication style/skills. The level of disregard for, or “pushback” against, Lee’s orders before and during Gettysburg is remarkable, especially in a military setting. Stuart appears to have substantially over-estimated his mandate; Heth disregarded the “avoid a general engagement” directive; Ewell – to hear the critics tell it – failed to understand Lee’s implication in his failure to attack late on July 1, when to me Lee’s communication style is clearly at fault; and Longstreet appears to have spent much of the battle arguing with Lee about strategic matters. Whether Longstreet was right or wrong, Lee, once his decisions were made, should have terminated the discussions and moved forward aggressively on his chosen path.

    3. Continuing on the management track, Lee certainly appears to have allowed his subordinates to take the blame for much of what went wrong at Gettysburg; while he is said to have taken responsibility after Pickett’s Charge, the leaks – whether he knew about or advocated them, or not – certainly suggest that some combination of Stuart, Heth, Ewell and/or Longstreet was at fault for the outcome. Either Lee himself pushed responsibility to others – doubtful – or those that worked for him did. At the very least, he seems never have to absolved the accused from responsibility during the remaining years of his life, to his own benefit.

    As for the gamble of invading the North, I don’t consider that to have been a “grave strategic error.” Lee’s strategic thinking was sound; it’s the tactical execution that raises questions, as detailed above.

    • wgdavis says:

      Thanks, Dan. I tend to agree pretty much with what you said.

      I also would note that Lee really had no choice but to stay and fight, as any other avenue he could legitimately pursue would have given Stuart no chance to get back to the main body. That fishhook position around Cemetery and Culp’s Hills keeps the door open for Stuart to return — in spite of Custer’s gallant efforts at Hanover and Hunterstown.

      I think a good commander listens to his subordinates. That said, two of the most emotional and excitable were Trimble and Early and they were both more interested in getting Ewell removed so Early or Trimble could be elevated and Lee knew that. Longstreet, however, may have fallen victim to the Virginia elitism rampant in the ANV from Lee on down. If you weren’t from Virginia, you were less of a soldier that the Virginians. [Iverson and O’Neal both fell victim to this, and deservedly so, for their actions on July 1, yet Mahone was protected when he refused to advance on July 2.]

      Lee did have the option to not renew the fighting on July 2. He could have just sat there and consolidated his line. Perhaps if had done that, then with the presence of Stuart again, maybe he could have withdrawn back up onto South Mountain and dug in to invite attack. But he had to stay in place until Stuart returned. He could afford to lose Stuart, but not his horses and men.

      Yes, Lee had a way with words, often the master at “damning with faint praise.” His general statement essentially was “but with more effort here, and greater energy there…”. owtte.

      Excellent comment, Dan!

  4. Bob Carey says:

    Dan and WG,
    I am also new to this blog so please bear with me.
    I think that Lee ‘s biggest error was continuing the fight on day 2. He could have fell back to the South Mountain passes and await attack. The ANV would have had the entire Cumberland valley to procure foodstuffs and his supply line to Virginia would have more easily been protected since , provided he secured Harpers Ferry.
    After instructing his commanders not to bring on a general engagement Lee did precisely that on day 2.
    I think that the “Lost Cause” memory of the war has given Lee a free pass when it comes to Gettysburg.

    • wgdavis says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Bob. I am in full agreement with them. And I am working on that Lost Cause thing as it relates to Gettysburg [yeah, I know, the whole Lost Cause rests on Gettysburg].

      • Bob Carey says:

        I agree with your assessment that the “Lost Cause” had its origins at Gettysburg. Early and Pendleton both shamelessly spread falsehoods on the conduct of Longstreet and Ewell, while ignoring their own mistakes. It bothers me that the confederates had to have a scapegoat for their loss at Gettysburg. I agree with George Pickett, the Union army had something to do with it.

        • WG Davis says:

          Yes, the Union Army had much to do with it, and a lot of what I have posted here goes to that…I think the command structure was superb in its actions [aside from a minor day-one disagreement between Messers Howard, Hancock and Thomas Rowley]. I also think the command structure [and, of course, the location of the Battle] had a lot to do with inspiring the men. But credit for the success at Gettysburg has to be laid at the feet of John Buford for the set-up he managed, and John Reynolds who fully concurred with Buford’s assessment of terrain and plan for action.

          • Bob Carey says:

            Both Buford and Reynolds deserve all the laurels that they have received. Allow me to bring up a name that receives very little mention in the Gettysburg literature,Von Steinwehr. I think his engineering skills were extremely important on days 1 and 2. The defensive works on Cemetery Hill caused Ewell to stop and think and he finally decided not to attack the hill on July 1. These same works also caused Rodes not to issue attack orders on July 2. Although this is pure speculation, I believe that any attack by Rodes on the evening of the 2nd would have probably insured Early’s success in taking East Cemetery Hill. I’ll be looking forward to any thoughts you may have about this.

  5. WG Davis says:

    Let’s take a look at Jubal Early’s performance upon reaching Gettysburg in the afternoon of July 1. He comes down the Harrisburg Pike and deploys Gordon to the right where he advances and starts to roll up the rapidly withdrawing Union right anchored on Blocher’s [Barlow] Knoll. Eleventh Corps briefly attempts a fighting withdrawal but rapidly dissolves into an ‘every-man-for-himself’ route. Hays and Hoke [Avery] handled the 3 minute scrap in the Brickyard with Coster’s Brigade. Extra Billy Smith was stuck in reserve behind Hoke, and eventually wandered out to York Pike on the east edge of town where he became Chicken Little sending numerous false reports of a heavy force of Union Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry approaching on York Pike from the east. So much for Old Jube on the first, although he does deserve kudos for his march from York.

    On the Second, Early was 3 hours late sending Hayes and Avery to attack the heights of Cemetery Hill. They paid a price, but this was perhaps the performance high point of Early’s Division at Gettysburg, though not by Early, who failed to send Gordon in support of the attack because Early failed to get Rodes into position to attack Cemetery Hill from the northwest as planned.

    On the Third, Early sent his ONLY Virginia Brigade, under the despised Extra Billy Smith around to the left flank of Johnson’s Division to assist in the holding of the ground gained by occupying the Federal Works on the lower slope of Culp’s Hill, abandoned earlier that night when ordered to Cemetery Ridge for support there. Later, Smith’s Brigade of only two regiments at that point, drove off a concerted and somewhat foolish attack by Massachusetts and Indiana regiments, and then snatched defeat from the jaws of Victory by foolishly counter-attacking across the same ground and nearly having his command wiped out.

    Thus ends Jubal Early’s participation in the Battle of Gettysburg. For someone so eager to lay the blame for the defeat on Longstreet — it becomes obvious — that at some point his post-war anti-Longstreet rants were to distract away from his own abysmal performance. Ewell’s Corps had little to crow about with their day-two assignments, as one division commander and a bunch of brigadiers failed one after the other. Only Hayes’ Louisiana Tigers achieved any success at all when they briefly captured the crest of Cemetery Hill.

    That said, a case could definitely be made that had Rodes made his attack, Gordon certainly would have been sent in to bolster Hayes’ success. However, with the fact that Baltimore Pike crosses from left to right as Hayes is attacking, certainly some of the First Corps troops on Steven’s Knoll would have formed a ‘fire brigade’ to counter Hayes from his left. Can you imagine a large column of troops appearing out of the darkness and slamming into Hayes left while he’s fully engaged in his front? Very few would have gotten back alive to the Confederate lines. This would likely have deterred Gordon from going forward.

    Oh how the terrain and road structure so favored the Army of the Potomac — thanks in large part to John Buford and John Reynolds.

    • WG Davis says:

      Thanks Bob! A great discussion, lacking only a table to sit at and an adult beverage of choice.

      • Bob Carey says:

        Always willing to share libations with people who have an interest in civil war and Gettysburg . I’ll be in Gettysburg in late October after the Apple thing. Maybe get together then.

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