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Gettysburg, 1862

June 2024
10min read


Editor's Note: Riding on the current tide of alternate history as well as raising it, Putnam is publishing a new book, edited by Robert Cowley, called What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. Among other speculations, Victor Davis Hanson has Western culture strangled in its cradle by a Persian victory at Salamis, Geoffrey Parker charts the fortunes of a successful Armada, David McCullough follows the Battle of Long Island to the likely capture of George Washington, John Keegan shows how Hitler could have won the war with a drive on the Middle Eastern oil fields—and James M. McPherson gives Lee the final victory in the essay excerpted here.

GREAT POSSIBILITIES RODE WITH THE ARMY OF Northern Virginia as it began to cross the Potomac at a ford thirty-five miles upriver from Washington on September 4, 1862. Since taking command of this army three months earlier, Gen. Robert E. Lee had halted the momentum of Union victory that had seemed imminent in May. At that time the Army of the Potomac had stood only five miles from Richmond, poised to capture the Confederate capital. But Lee launched a series of counter-offensives that turned the war around. His troops drove Union forces back from Richmond in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1 ) and then shifted the action to northern Virginia, where they won the battles of Cedar Mountain (August 9), Second Manassas (August 29–30), and Chantilly (September 1). Dispirited Union troops retreated to the defenses of Washington to lick their wounds.

Worse was to come: Western Confederate armies, which had been defeated in every campaign and battle from January to June, regrouped during July, and in August and in September they not only reconquered the eastern half of Tennessee but also moved into Kentucky, captured the capital at Frankfort, and prepared to inaugurate a Confederate governor.

This startling reversal caused Northern morale to plummet, it encouraged the peace wing of the Democratic party to step up its attacks on Lincoln’s policy of trying to restore the Union by war, and it emboldened the watchers overseas. Napoleon instructed his foreign minister to “ask the English government if it does not believe the time has come to recognize the South,” and Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer gave a speech declaring that “Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either; they have made a nation.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln was hardening on the issue of emancipation. On July 22 he informed the cabinet that he had decided to use his war powers as Commander in Chief to seize enemy property to issue an emancipation proclamation. Emancipation, he said, had become “a military necessity.…We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.…” Most of the cabinet agreed, but Secretary of State William H. Seward advised postponement of the proclamation “until you can give it to the country supported by military success.” Otherwise the world might view it “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help … our last shriek , on the retreat.”

Lee, well aware of all the implications a decisive move now could have for the Confederacy, was pushing north into Maryland; if Lincoln was to have his victory, it would have to be given him by Gen. George McClellan.

McClellan, as so often, was clamoring for reinforcements, particularly the twelve-thousand-man garrison at Harpers Ferry. But General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck refused to release these troops. That refusal created both a problem and an opportunity for Lee. The garrison threatened his line of supply through the Shenandoah Valley. So on September 9 Lee drafted Special Order No. 191 for the dispatch of almost two-thirds of his army in three widely separated columns under the overall command of Stonewall Jackson to converge on Harpers Ferry and capture it. The opportunity: a large supply of artillery, rifles, ammunition, provisions, shoes, and clothing for his ragged, shoeless, hungry troops. The problem: McClellan might get between the separated parts of his army during the three to six days it would take to carry out this operation and destroy the fragments of the Army of Northern Virginia in detail.

The odds against the loss and finding and verification of Lee’s Special Order No. 191 must have been a million to one.

But two of Lee’s hallmarks as a commander were his uncanny ability to judge an opponent’s qualities and his willingness to take great risks. If he could seize the Harpers Ferry armory, he could freshly provision his troops, give them a few days’ precious rest, and allow thousands of exhausted stragglers the chance to catch up. Then Lee intended to tear up the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and move to Harrisburg and destroy the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge over the Susquehanna, thus severing the Union’s main east-west rail links. “After that,” Lee concluded, describing the plan to one of his commanders, “I can turn my attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, as may seem best for our interests.” McClellan, he added, “is an able general but a very cautious one.…”

EVEN AS LEE WAS OFFERING THESE OBSERVATIONS, HOW- ever, his adversary had an extraordinary stroke of luck. On September 13 two Union soldiers resting in a field near Frederick, where the Confederates had camped a few days earlier, found a copy of Lee’s Special Order No. 191 wrapped around three cigars where they had been lost by a careless Southern officer. Recognizing its importance, the Yankee soldiers took the document to their captain, who forwarded it up the chain of command until it reached McClellan. A Union staff officer was able to vouch for the genuineness of the document, for he had known Lee’s adjutant in the pre-war army and recognized his handwriting.

The orders gave McClellan a picture of the division of Lee’s army into five parts, each at least eight or ten miles from any other, while the most widely separated units were thirty miles apart with the Potomac River between them. No Civil War general ever had a better chance to destroy an enemy army. As usual, however, McClellan moved cautiously. He did drive Confederate defenders away from the South Mountain passes on September 14, but Harpers Ferry fell to Jackson on the fifteenth, and Lee was able to concentrate most of the Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg before McClellan was ready to attack on September 17. After an all-day battle along the ridges above Antietam Creek, Lee was compelled to retreat across the Potomac. The victory, limited though it was, allowed Lincoln to issue his proclamation, but without the discovery of the lost order, things might well have gone very differently.

The odds against the sequence of events that led to the loss and finding and verification of these orders must have been a million to one. Much more in line with the laws of probability is something like the following scenario.

Special Order No. 191 failed to leak out, and while the Harpers Ferry garrison surrendered twelve thousand men and mountains of supplies to Jackson, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry performed outstanding service, bringing up stragglers and guarding the passes through the South Mountain range against the ineffectual probes of Union horsemen trying to discover the whereabouts of Lee’s main force. On September 16 McClellan arrived at Frederick, which Rebels had vacated a week earlier. By then Lee had reconcentrated his army at Hagerstown. Some ten thousand stragglers had rejoined the ranks, and thanks to the supplies at Harpers Ferry, the Army of Northern Virginia was well equipped for the first time in two months.

The Rebels moved north into Pennsylvania, brushing aside local militia and the outriders of Union cavalry who finally located them. Spreading like locusts through the rich farmland of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, Lee’s army—now fifty-five thousand strong—was able to feed itself better than it had in Virginia. On October 1 the van reached Carlisle. Lee sent a strong detachment of cavalry and part of Jackson’s swift-marching infantry twenty miles farther to the railroad bridge at Harrisburg, which they burned on October 3. The Confederate commander also sent his Maryland scouts back into their home state to locate the Army of the Potomac. They found it near Emmitsburg, just south of the Pennsylvania border, moving northward with a determined speed that suggested that McClellan finally meant to find Lee and fight him.

The scouts also reported to Lee that they had discovered a series of hills and ridges around a town named Gettysburg where numerous roads converged, enabling an army to concentrate there quickly. On October 4 Lee ordered his army to Gettysburg; they arrived there only hours before the enemy, and by October 6 the Army of Northern Virginia was dug in on the hills south of town.

McClellan came under enormous pressure from Washington to attack the invaders. “Destroy the Rebel army,” Lincoln wired him. From the Union position on Seminary Ridge, a reluctant McClellan surveyed the Confederate defenses from the Round Tops on the south along Cemetery Ridge northward to Cemetery and Gulp’s Hills. McClellan evolved a tactical plan for a diversionary attack on the morning of October 8 against Longstreet’s corps on the Confederate right. When Lee shifted reinforcements to that sector, the Yankees would launch their main assault through the peach orchard and wheat field against the Confederate left center on low ground just north of Little Round Top, held by Jackson’s corps. If successful, this attack would pierce a hole in the Confederate line, giving Union cavalry massed behind the center a chance to exploit the breakthrough. Napoleonic in conception, this plan had a crucial defect: It left the Union flanks denuded of cavalry.

At dawn the Union I and IX Corps carried out the diversionary attack on Cemetery and Gulp’s Hills. Lee saw through the feint, however, and refused to shift his reserves, A. P. Hill’s light division, to that sector. Longstreet held firm, so when the Union II, VI, and XII Corps attacked through the peach orchard and wheat field, they found Jackson ready for them. Fierce fighting produced a harvest of carnage unprecedented even in this bloody war, with neither side gaining any advantage.

About 3:00 P.M. Stuart reported to Lee that the Union right was uncovered. Lee immediately ordered Hill to take his division south around Round Top and attack the Union flank in the wheat field. Undetected by the Union cavalry that was massed more than a mile to the north, Hill’s six thousand men burst from the woods and boulders of Devil’s Den screaming the Rebel yell. Many of them wore blue uniforms captured at Harpers Ferry, which increased the surprise and confusion among Union troops of XII Corps. Like a row of falling dominoes, the exhausted and decimated Union brigades collapsed. With perfect timing the rest of Jackson’s corps counterattacked, smashing the fragments of Union regiments that had rallied to resist Hill. As the fighting rolled in echelon toward the north, Longstreet’s corps joined the counterattack at 4:30 P.M.

McClellan had kept his favorite V Corps in reserve. Steadied by Brig. Gen. George Stykes’s division of regulars, they held back the yelling Rebels for a brief time. But as the sun dipped below the South Mountain range, V Corps also broke. In a desperate attempt to rally them, McClellan rode to the front. “Soldiers!” he shouted. “Stand fast! I will lead you!” As he drew his sword, a minié ball smashed into his skull and toppled him dead from his horse. Word of McClellan’s death spread like lightning through the thinned and scattered ranks of Yankee units that were still fighting. The last remnants of resistance winked out. Thousands of dejected bluecoats surrendered; thousands more melted away into the dusk. The Army of the Potomac ceased to exist as a fighting force.

News of the Battle of Gettysburg resounded through the land and across the Atlantic. “My God! My God!” exclaimed Lincoln in the White House. “What will the country say?” It said plenty, all of it bad. Even staunch patriots and Lincoln supporters like Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune , gave up hope. “An armistice is bound to come during the year ’63,” he wrote. “The Rebs can’t be conquered by the present machinery.” Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts, which had suffered 75 percent casualties at Gettysburg, wrote in November that “the army is tired with its hard and terrible experience … I’ve pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence.”

In Kentucky, Union and Confederate forces had clashed in the indecisive Battle of Perryville on the same day (October 8) as the Battle of Gettysburg. Encouraged by the news from Pennsylvania, the Confederate commanders Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith decided to continue their Kentucky campaign. Having already occupied Lexington and Frankfort, they began a drive toward the prize of Louisville as the Union Army under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, discouraged by the reports of McClellan’s defeat and death, fell back listlessly. In Pennsylvania, after a pause for consolidation of his supply lines, Lee began an advance toward Baltimore. Newly emboldened pro-Confederate Marylanders openly affirmed their allegiance. Although reserve troops manning the formidable defenses ringing Washington dissuaded Lee from attacking the capital, there was no Union field army capable of resisting Lee’s movements.

Hesitant to goad last-ditch resistance by attacking a major city, however, Lee paused to await the outcome of Northern congressional elections on November 4. The voters sent a loud and clear message that they wished to end the war, even on terms of Confederate independence. Democrats won control of the next House of Representatives, and the peace wing established a firm hold on the party.

At almost the moment the election results became known, the British minister to the United States, Lord Lyons, presented Secretary of State Seward with an offer signed by the governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary to mediate an end to the war on the basis of separation. “We will not admit the division of the Union at any price,” Seward responded. “There is no possible compromise.” Very well, responded Lyons. In that case Her Majesty’s government will recognize the independence of the Confederate States of America. Other European governments will do the same. “This is not a matter of principle or preference,” Lyons told Seward, “but of fact.”

Despite Seward’s bluster, he was a practical statesman. He was also a student of history. He knew that American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 had brought French diplomatic recognition of the fledgling United States, followed by French assistance and intervention that proved crucial to the achievement of American independence. Would history repeat itself? Would British and French recognition of the Confederacy be followed by military assistance and intervention—against the blockade, for example? As they pondered these questions and absorbed the results of the congressional elections, while Confederate armies stood poised for attack outside Baltimore and Louisville, Lincoln and Seward concluded that they had no choice.

ON A GLOOMY NEW YEAR’S DAY 1863, a melancholy Lincoln called Republican congressional leaders and state governors to the White House. “This is not the duty I had hoped to discharge today,” he told them. “Last July I decided to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in Rebel states, to take effect today,” he continued sadly. “There is no chance of that now. Would my word free the slaves when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the Rebel States?” Instead “we are faced with a situation in which the whole world seems to be against us. Last summer, after McClellan was driven back from Richmond, I said that in spite of that setback, ‘I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.’ Gentlemen, the people expressed their opinion in the late elections. The country has forsaken us, and the next Congress will be against us. Whether or not we admit we are conquered, we must admit that we have failed to conquer the rebellion. Today I will issue a proclamation accepting the insurgents’ offer of an armistice. Secretary Seward will accept the good offices of foreign powers for mediation.” The President’s voice choked as he concluded: “Gentlemen, the United States no longer exists as one nation, indivisible.”


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