Why Lee Stayed to Fight

[Earlier we explored Lee’s order to Heth: Do not bring on a general engagement.]  We asked why  Lee stayed to fight after the first day.  Here is what we think is the reason Lee stayed after the fighting ended the first day.]

We think Lee was hedging his bet when he ordered Heth not to bring on a general engagement.

First, he learned from Longstreet’s spy, Harrison, that Meade was the new commander of the Army of the Potomac and that the AoP was on the way north late in the evening on June 28th.  He began issuing orders to concentrate on Chambersburg immediately.  As a result, Johnson’s Division of Ewell’s Corps was sent from Carlisle toward Chambersburg.  After Johnson started on the 29th, and at a point that Ewell judged too late to turn Johnson, Ewell received a second order from Lee ordering the Second Corps [Ewell] to concentrate on Heidlersburg, keeping the Second Corps east of South Mountain.  It also kept Ewell’s two divisions poised to move to Gettysburg, or a few miles farther to Cashtown.

 And there, perhaps is the key to Lee’s thinking.

We believe Lee was unsure of what Union forces were at Gettysburg, and if indeed the Army of the Potomac beat him to that town, then he would not have the choice of the ground on which he was to fight.  Therefore, Lee would not be able to fight a defensive engagement, but rather be forced to make an offensive assault, and with Meade getting there first, the assault would likely be made against fortified positions.

 Hence, his orders included Cashtown as a point of concentration.

 But why Cashtown?

 The Chambersburg Pike was good road, all the way to Chambersburg.  The ground along that route offered numerous opportunities to slow or stop a pursuing force.  With Hill already there, and Longstreet on the way, there was power coming down that road off South Mountain toward Gettysburg.  If Heth did get ensnared in a fight at Gettysburg, Lee had Ewell north of town, with good roads heading into Gettysburg, and Hill followed by Longstreet heading east on Chambersburg Pike.  And that is what happened.

 On the other hand, if Heth did not get into a fight at Gettysburg, Lee was free to withdraw up the mountain and pick a spot to dig in and invite Meade to come at him.  Or, he could have simply crossed back into the Cumberland Valley and headed back to Virginia.  But we are betting Lee would have dug in on the east slope of South Mountain and waited for Meade to attack.  He knew Meade would be forced to attack…by his own generals, by the Northern newspaper editors, and by Lincoln.

 He would have been wise to send a Brigade or two of Infantry, and a Brigade of Cavalry [Jenkins, Imboden?] south in the Cumberland Valley and then east up the mountain to cover each of the passes over the mountain west of Fairfield.  Obviously, none of this includes Stuart and his Cavalry force because Lee had little idea where he was or whether he was under attack or not [indeed, he was under attack, at Hanover on June 30, at Hunterstown on July 2, both by newly minted Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Michigan Brigade, and others].  Certainly Lee did know that the Union Army had taken position between himself and Stuart.

Could it be that Lee decided to stay and fight at Gettysburg beyond the first day because of Stuart?  He could not afford to lose Stuart’s Cavalry, and leaving him isolated on the other side of the Army of the Potomac put Stuart into a position where he had no escape, so Lee had to stay nearby and essentially shorten the distance Stuart had to travel to get back with Lee’s army, and pray that Stuart could do it.  And by placing himself at Gettysburg with the Army of the Potomac to the Southeast of town, and with the Army of the Potomac south of him, Lee effectively opened the path for Stuart and his troopers to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia.

What do you think?

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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