The Story of Gettysburg: Moving North: Part 2: Preparing for Movement
An Essay By Benjamin // 1/26/2014
Among the first items with which Lee had to deal in preparation for the invasion was the reorganization of the army, a matter that had long been on his mind. On 20 May, Lee wrote President Davis, “I have for the past year felt that the corps of this army were too large for one commander. Nothing prevented my proposing to you to reduce their size and increase their number but my inability to recommend commanders. Each corps contains, when in fighting condition, about 30,000 men. These are more than one man can properly handle and keep under his eye in battle in the country that we have to operate in. They are always beyond the range of his vision, and frequently beyond his reach.”1
Lee’s solution to this problem was quite simply to create a new Third Corps out of various segments of the First and Second Corps. In Lee’s reorganization, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Lee’s “Old Warhorse” would retain command of a reduced First Corps but for the other two corps, Lee needed to find new commanders who could fill the shoes of the famed Stonewall Jackson. Lee must have keenly felt the loss of Jackson at this time, for now, as the army prepared to march north, two of Lee’s three corps would be commanded by generals that had yet to be tried in command of such large bodies of troops.
But the Confederacy did not have the luxury of time, for she was slowly dying, the economic strain of the Federal blockade proving more than she could long bear. An opportunity presented itself, and Lee had to act. He had to regain the strategic initiative, despite the lack of experience among the higher echelons of the army. Yet Lee would retain one officer in corps command whom he had found he could trust and who carried fully his confidence. In the coming campaign, Lee would lean on his “Old Warhorse” more than ever.
Ironically, one of the main opponents to Lee’s plan of invasion had been General Longstreet. During his campaign in southern Virginia, Longstreet had begun contemplation over the situation in Mississippi, eventually arriving at the conclusion that the best way to remedy the situation would be to send a strong force to reinforce General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee. Aided by General Johnston’s forces, this army would then march north through Tennessee and Kentucky all the way to Ohio, thus effecting Grant’s withdrawal from Vicksburg to repel this threat of invasion.
Convinced that this was the most certain method of freeing Vicksburg and Mississippi from the swift advances of Grant, and indeed, the only path to victory for the Confederacy, Longstreet presented this plan to Lee just before the Richmond conference. Lee listened patiently, but he had already made up his mind. Such a movement simply was not practicable. By the end of three days of discussion, Lee had thoroughly convinced Longstreet that the only viable option open to the Confederacy was invasion of Pennsylvania.
In a May 13 letter to Senator Louis Wigfall, Longstreet declared, “There is a fair prospect of forward movement. That being the case we can spare nothing from this army to re-enforce the West. On the contrary we should have use of our own and the balance of our Armies if we could get them. If we could cross the Potomac with one hundred & fifty thousand men, I think we could demand Lincoln to declare his purpose. If it is a Christian purpose enough of bled has been shed to satisfy any principles. If he intends extermination we should know it at once and play a little at that game whilst we can.”
Indeed, far from opposing this movement in favor of the ideas of the western concentration block, Longstreet instead urged in this same letter that the government should send any reinforcements they had to Lee’s army for the invasion. “Gen. Lee sent for me when he read the Secy’s letter,” wrote Longstreet. “I told him that I thought that we could spare the troops unless there was a chance of a forward movement. If we could move of course, we should want everything, that we had and all that we could get.”
Summarizing his position, Longstreet claimed, “When I agreed with the Secy & yourself about sending troops west, I was under the impression that we would be obliged to remain on the defensive here. But the prospect of an advance changes the aspect of affairs to us entirely.”2 Longstreet, fully convinced by Lee, now spoke against the very plan he had earlier advocated, abandoning it now in favor of the bright possibilities of an invasion of Pennsylvania.
In the strategy planning of the two generals, they also discussed the tactics they would use in the invasion campaign. Longstreet later claimed to have pressed for a tactical defensive in the coming campaign, urging Lee that, though the campaign would take the form of an offensive invasion, the army when it fought should stand on the defensive, maneuvering in such a way as to force the enemy to give battle. As Longstreet later put it, “Under no circumstance were we to give battle, but exhaust our skill in trying to force the enemy to do so in a position of our own choosing.”3
It would be too much, however, to assume that this idea disagreed in any way with Lee’s own thinking, for the idea of the tactical defense used in conjunction with the strategic offense was a centuries old concept and was, as historian Stephen W. Sears wrote, “exactly what any field general always hoped and dreamed of achieving.”4
Thus, Longstreet found Lee in ready agreement with this plan. Indeed, regarding Lee’s purposes on the field of battle, Walter Taylor, adjutant of Lee’s staff wrote, “His design was to free the State of Virginia, for a time at least, from the presence of the enemy, to transfer the theater of war to Northern soil, and, by selecting a favorable time and place in which to receive the attack which his adversary would be compelled to make on him, to take the reasonable chances of defeating him in a pitched battle.”5
After the war, Longstreet managed to convince himself that this concurrence on Lee’s part was in fact a promise to fight only a defensive battle in Pennsylvania, going so far as to claim, “upon this understanding my assent was given.”6 What Longstreet fails to explain is why Lee would need his assent in the first place. Furthermore, such a promise was, as Lee later termed it, “absurd,” Lee claiming that he “never made any such promise.”7 Indeed, it would be shocking if he had, for both he and Longstreet knew well that when, where, and how a battle would play out was beyond their control. Circumstances on the battlefield would in the end dictate their decisions.
Thus, though the subject of the tactical defensive might have entered into the discussions of the two generals, it is truly ludicrous to believe that Lee would have made any such promise as Longstreet claimed. Instead, it seems that there was full agreement between Lee and Longstreet on what course of action they ought to pursue, but only as the providence of God dictated. Longstreet had become a full convert to Lee’s way of thinking, informing Senator Wigfall in his May 13 letter that Lee would soon travel to Richmond “to settle matters. … I shall ask him to take a memorandum of all points and settle upon something at once.”2
Now, upon Lee’s return from the Richmond conference, he had to perform the difficult task of deciding on a suitable replacement for Stonewall Jackson. Lee expressed this problem in a letter to Major General John B. Hood. “Our army would be invincible,” he wrote, “if it could be properly organized and officered. There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led. But there is the difficulty – proper commanders. Where can they be obtained?”8
Finally, after much contemplation, Lee decided on two suitable commanders. To lead Jackson’s Second Corps, Lee settled on Richard Stoddert Ewell, described by Lee as “an honest, brave soldier, who has always done his duty well.”9 The appointment of Ewell to command of the Second Corps came as no surprise. Ewell had served under Jackson during the Shenandoah Campaign and had been his most trusted division commander. In fact, a rumor had spread through the army that Jackson’s dying request had been for Ewell to succeed him in command of the corps. The Second Corps thus welcomed his appointment to command with exuberance. Jedediah Hotchkiss, who had served as chief topographer under Jackson, expressed the feelings of the corps in a letter to his wife. “We have our wishes gratified here in having Gen. Ewell to command the old army of Gen. Jackson,” he wrote. “As much of the ardor as could possibly be transferred to any man has been transferred by this corps to Gen. Ewell.”10
To command the newly formed Third Corps, Lee selected Ambrose Powell Hill, who, Lee wrote, “is the best soldier of his grade with me.”11 Yet though Hill seemed to receive universal praise from Lee and his subordinates, the same could not be said of Longstreet who had developed a dislike for the “Little Powell,” whose pride had gotten him in trouble on more than one occasion with his superiors. Indeed, some have postulated that it was for this very reason that Lee promoted Hill to command of the Third Corps. As a corps commander, with Lee as his only superior, it was presumed that Hill would cease his constant feuding.
Yet Hill’s fighting qualities cannot be denied. Lee’s held Hill in high esteem as a soldier and regarded him, next to Longstreet and Jackson, as his best commander, writing, “He fights his troops well, and takes good care of them.”12 Even Longstreet admitted that Hill was “a gallant, good soldier.”13 And so, Lee’s selections were made. Ewell and Hill would receive the commands of the Second and Third Corps respectively, each receiving also a promotion to the rank of lieutenant general. In the coming campaign, these generals would have to work to prove themselves to the army and to Lee. It would be a hard task for the shoes they had to fill were large indeed. But they had little time to learn their roles, indeed, scarcely a month. For the army would soon march northward.