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With The Gunners

May 2018

It was, to repeat, defeat and victory together, one and inseparable; and although some profound emotion compels us to look at the beaten, we do see at the same time that various people on the other side had something to do with the outcome. Gettysburg Was not just lost; it was also won, and something can be learned by asking “Why?” on that side as well.

Gettysburg has been under the microscope for many years, and on the tactical side not much ground has been left unplowed; but Fairfax Downey has found a relatively untouched area in the handling of the artillery at this fight. He explores it with diligence in The Guns at Gettysburg , and the result is a book that makes a good companion piece to Mr. Dowdey’s book. (It is possible to foresee a certain confusion in the bookstores, here; between Mr. Dowdey and Mr. Downey, either the clerks or the customers are likely to get a little mixed.)

The Guns at Gettysburg, by Fairfax Downey. David McKay Company, Inc. 290 pp. $5.00

Mr. Downey considers the use that the two armies made of their artillery, and he comes up with the conclusion that while the Confederates had the better organization, the Unionists had the better man in command, and this seems to have made a great deal of difference. With an exhaustive analysis of the way in which each army used this weapon, Mr. Downey presents the battle in a new way—from the viewpoint of the gunner, who acted as anchor man for the infantry and who, from beginning to end, inflicted and took a great deal of very hard pounding. Of necessity, his book is technical, but it is not excessively so; even for the lay reader it is interesting throughout, and it represents a pleasantly fresh approach to the analysis of the battle.

The Confederates took 272 fieldpieces to Gettysburg, and the Unionists had 362. All in all, these weapons fired some 55,000 rounds—moderate enough by modern standards, but a stupendous number for that day. No one can claim that the artillery by itself decided the issue there, but it did have a great deal to do with it, and at a few critical moments it was the gunners who had to stand the gaff and take the beating until the infantry could come in to settle things. The guns themselves look like museum pieces nowadays—muzzle-loaders, almost entirely, and a good half of them smoothbores of limited range. But they were hideously effective during the three days of the battle, and if in the end they were not clearly decisive, they at least made the final decision possible.

The Confederates allotted their guns by battalions—roughly, sixteen guns to a battalion—with each division possessing one battalion and each corps possessing two in reserve. Controlling the lot was supposed to be the chief of artillery, Brigadier General William N. Pendleton. Unfortunately for the Confederate cause, Pendleton was a first-rate organizer and administrator but a very defective field commander, and at Gettysburg he let the separate units fight their own fight. Lee was outgunned at Gettysburg, but he never made full use of the guns he had. His chief of artillery just was not up to it.

Organization on the Union side was different. The Unionists grouped their batteries in brigades, each of which was somewhat larger than the Confederate battalion, and allotted one brigade to an army corps, with a substantial residue in reserve under the control of army headquarters. Artillery chief was Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, whose authority was supposed to be limited to administrative matters but who actually stepped out and commanded all of the guns—to the extent to which the corps commanders would permit. Hunt, indeed, emerges as one of the great men of the battle. The Unionists not only had the advantage in weight of metal; they also had a better gunner in charge, and their guns were used much more effectively than were those of the Confederates. No subordinate gave Meade better service than Hunt gave him at Gettysburg.

To Mr. Downey, the story of Gettysburg is the story of the guns, and he tells it very well indeed, from the moment when the Federals’ horse artillery opened on the advancing Confederate infantry on the morning of July i, down to the afternoon of July 3 when massed cannon ripped Pickett’s charge apart and kept the Confederates from getting decisive numbers up to the crest of Cemetery Ridge. There were a few times when the guns actually held the balance of power. On the afternoon of July 2, for instance, when Federal infantry had been driven from Sickles’ poorly chosen advance position, nothing but the tremendous effort of a few batteries kept the Confederates from overrunning Cemetery Ridge during the crucial half-hour that Meade spent in bringing up his reserves. It is quite possible, too, that Pickett’s assault on the final day would have succeeded if Union artillery had not pounded the assaulting column so hard before it got within musket range.

On the Confederate side, the failure of the artillery is manifest. Lee did open a thunderous cannonade to prepare the way for Pickett’s charge; but Mr. Downey insists on calling attention to the vast number of Confederate guns which did not fire a shot in this cannonade, although it would have been quite possible for Pendleton to arrange them in such a way as to take Cemetery Hill and the area immediately south of it under a devastating cross fire. The guns that did get into action fired, uniformly, just a little high. The supposedly safe rear slope of Cemetery Ridge was thoroughly plastered with shells during the bombardment, to the intense discomfort of the behind-the-lines details, but the point of attack itself came through with only minor damage. In addition, when Pickett’s infantry did advance, the artillery support that was supposed to advance with it was lacking, due to some administrative blunder at headquarters. Valiant as it was, Lee’s artillery failed him at Gettysburg. The Federals not only had more gun power, but they used what they had far more effectively.

When we look at Gettysburg we see, usually, the infantry—which, Heaven knows, is worth looking at. The guns are worth looking at too, and here, for the first time, is a studious analysis of just how they were used and what they accomplished. Treat Gettysburg as victory or as defeat, by your own choice; it does help to know what the technicians were doing.