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Thursday, August 05, 2010


Steve Cole reports:

On July 2nd, 1863, Robert E. Lee launched a massive "rolling attack" on the Union lines south of Gettysburg. His troops started from the south end, and one brigade after another was thrown against the union line. While the Confederates barely matched the Union forces in numbers, there was no doubt (then or now) that, on that day and for the previous two years, Lee's infantry was far better at the business of war than their northern brothers. Everywhere along the line, Lee's troops made ground, driving the Union forces back along wide stretches of the line. Major General Meade, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, was quickly in trouble. He sent all of his reserves to the southern end of his line to prevent the rebels from crushing it, then began pulling troops from the north end of his line to reinforce the center. As brigade after brigade of southern troops smashed into his line, Meade knew he was in trouble, and he had already directed his cavalry to establish a screen behind his Army through which his defeated infantry could retreat. Meade knew that the next brigade or two that attacked would hit an empty spot on his line, a spot stripped of troops to save the crumbling left wing. He also knew that when that happened, the shattered remnants of First and Eleventh Corps (defeated on the previous day and now holding Cemetery Hill and the area around it), would be trapped and destroyed by the Confederate divisions of Generals Pender and Rhodes. Those divisions were clearly ready to attack in turn. Lee was within an hour of having the "victory on northern soil" that he so desperately wanted.

Then, something went wrong with the Confederate attack -- and it just stopped. The two rebel brigades aimed at the empty spot (those of Brigadiers Carnot Posey and Billy Mahone) simply did not attack. Meade did not know why the attack stopped until months later, when he read stolen Confederate reports.

Carnot Posey was the next in line to attack, and by the plan, his troops were to step off just minutes after the brigade on their right. They did not, for the simple reason that they had already used up their energy, ammunition, and water supplies in a four-hour battle with a hundred Union skirmishes who held the Bliss farmhouse and its nearby barns and sheds. The rebels had known the Yankees were there, and Major General Anderson (Posey's boss) had told him to chase the skirmishes away hours before. This should have involved a simple bayonet charge by one of Posey's four regiments, an action that would have taken only a few minutes. (The skirmishers were not there to hold the farm, just to screen the main Union line, and would have retreated without fuss if a determined attack had appeared. This was just the way such things were done.) Instead, Posey sent only part of a regiment, and instead of launching an attack, they just flopped down a couple of hundred yards from the farm and began exchanging sporadic rifle fire. The Yankees in the farm buildings saw no serious attack coming their way, and so they stayed behind cover and fired off enough shots to let the rebels know they were still there. Over the next two hours, Posey fed more and more companies into the skirmish, but never took personal charge or demanded that his colonels launch a spirited assault. The skirmishing went on and on, and by the time it was their turn for the main attack, Posey's brigade was "used up" in every sense of the word. It simply wasn't able to attack.

The next brigade in line was that of Billy Mahone, a rebel officer with an interesting reputation for alternating episodes of laziness and aggression. July 2nd, 1863, was a lazy day for Billy Mahone, and he apparently decided that since Posey did not attack, there was no reason for him to do so either. (Historians assume that if Posey had gone forward, Mahone would have followed his orders.) He even bluntly refused a direct order from Major General Anderson (sent by way of a courier) to get moving. Anderson himself was nowhere in sight, and spent the day having a picnic lunch with his staff behind Seminary Ridge, out of sight of the battle. (Had Anderson done his job instead of just assuming that his brigadiers were grownups capable of carrying out orders, he would have been on the front line, telling Posey to stop skirmishing and run the Yankees out of the farmhouse, and telling Mahone to attack on time.)

There was one final chance for the Confederacy. Major General Dorsey Pender commanded the division on Anderson's left, and Pender was ready to go with his attack, which would have (no doubt about it) destroyed the Union's First Corps. (After this, Rhode's division would have destroyed Eleventh Corps, and Meade would have left the field leaving half of his Army killed or captured.) Pender was anxious to attack, and was dumbfounded when Mahone did not move. In those days, of course, there were no radios. Pender could not call Lee to see if the plan had changed, and could not confer with Mahone or Anderson. Pender could have attacked on his own, but without cover on his right flank (where Mahone should have been) Pender knew that his attack could not succeed. Leaping on his horse, Pender rode like the wind to find Mahone and order him to attack. No doubt, Mahone would not have refused an order from a two-star general, not when it was delivered face to face, and Pender (no doubt) would have relieved Mahone of command on the spot had the order been refused. But Pender never reached Mahone, as he was caught by a random Union cannonball, tearing off his leg. (Pender died shortly thereafter.) In those days, the concept of a "second in command" did not exist, on either side. If a leader fell in battle, his place was taken by the senior of his subordinates, a process that (without radios) easily took an hour. (Someone had to notice that the leader was down, then go find the next senior subordinate -- if he still lived -- and tell him of his "promotion". That senior subordinate then had to turn over his own unit to his own senior subordinate, and then go to some spot where he could command the larger unit.) Today, of course, a battalion or brigade commander has two deputies (the executive officer and operations officer, either of which can take over) and a division or higher commander actually has three (four if you count the artillery brigade commander, who is probably hanging around headquarters because his own battalions are assigned to brigades). Without a commander, Pender's Division went nowhere, and Rhodes (still waiting for Pender to attack) watched the sun go down without realizing that it was setting on the Confederacy as well as July 2nd).
So, because he didn't "get on with the dirty work," Posey frittered away his brigade. Because Mahone was in a lazy mood, he did not attack. Because Anderson was not supervising his subordinates, neither of them got the job done, and Lee's plan for the day (a plan that, no question, would have worked) collapsed.

That empty spot where Posey and Mahone's attack should have gone on July 2nd was where Picket's Division went on July 3rd. Meade, being no idiot, had plugged the gap by then.