Letter to the Southern Historical Society
- Charlottesville, Va., April, 1877.
- Rev. J. WM. Jones, D. D.,
- Secretary Southern Historical Society:
The questions of ——, in relation to the invasion of Pennsylvania and the battle of Gettysburg, I will notice in the order in which they are propounded:
1st. "It was a mistake to invade the Northern States at all, because it stirred up their military spirit. The best chance of the Confederacy was the pecuniary exhaustion of the North, and not the exhaustion of its resources in men. The invasion of the North was the death blow to what has been called the 'Copperhead' party. It called under arms thousands of men who would never have enrolled otherwise, and who became experienced soldiers in 1864; and, moreover, it diminished for one or two years the resisting powers of the Confederate army."
Since there was never a deficiency of men in the Northern army, it may be justly inferred that the stimulant of our invasion was not needed to arouse the military spirit of the North.
In regard to the Copperhead influence in the prosecution of the war, ---- seems to adhere to the same fallacy that was entertained by many prominent Confederates at the commencement of hostilities, but which was speedily dissipated by subsequent events. The fruit of the first battle of Manassas was lost partly on account of the opinion that the capture of Washington and the invasion of Maryland would unite the political parties of the North and obliterate the hope of a speedy termination of the war; for it was soon demonstrated that the mortifying defeat of the Federal army at Manassas, July, 1861, as firmly united the political parties of the North as an invasion would have done.
Again, ---- seems oblivious of the fact that while there was a pecuniary diminution of one per cent in the North there were ten in the South. ---- is mistaken in his opinion that the resisting power of the South was materially impaired by the invasion of Pennsylvania. This is clearly shown by the subsequent movements of the Army of Northern Virginia, for it will be remembered that on the retreat from Gettysburg the Federal army was held in check at Williamsport until the passage of the Potomac could be safely effected, without any greater diminution of strength than the loss of ten or twelve thousand men--the result of the battle of Gettysburg. These losses were soon replaced, and it was again in a position to assert its strength with effect against the Federal army on the Orange and Alexandria railroad and in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Therefore, on the above grounds, ----'s opinions in regard to the invasion of Pennsylvania are erroneous. Many of the Northern writers on the War between the States seem to have taken but little pains to extend their search for information much beyond the Federal lines.
Before deciding upon the merits of a military movement it is necessary to understand the motives which dictated it.
2d. "If the invasion was to be undertaken, only raiding parties should have been sent until the Army of the Potomac should have been defeated. It was a great mistake to bring her on the Northern soil, where she fought ten times better than in Virginia. A real invasion, viz: the establishment of the Confederate army in Pennsylvania, with its communications well secured, was an impossibility as long as the Federal army was not crushed. The proof of this is, that as soon as the latter began to move, Lee, who had undertaken nothing but a raid on too large a scale, found himself so much endangered that he was obliged to fight an offensive battle on the ground and where Meade chose to wait for him. He ought to have manoeuvred in Virginia so as to bring on a battle before crossing the Potomac."
The answer to these questions requires a brief reference to the circumstances which dictated the movement into Pennsylvania.
Shortly after the battle of Chancellorsville the Army of Northern Virginia had, by the return of absentees and the divisions of Longstreet, been increased to sixty-five thousand men, and its recent victories, with the care bestowed on its reorganization equipment and discipline, made its spirit and efficiency unsurpassed by any army of modern times. This result was chiefly due to the unaided exertions of General Lee.
While the army was in admirable condition, the country at large was beginning to sink into despondency from the want of a reliable financial system, and the rapid diminution of its military resources.
As no relief was afforded by judicious legislation, bold and successful military operations were necessary to rouse the drooping spirits of the Confederacy.
Since the battle of Chancellorsville the Army of the Potomac, though dispirited, maintained a threatening attitude; its ranks had been filled to its original numbers, and Richmond was still its objective point.
The relative condition of the opposing armies early in June suggested to General Lee the advantage of a departure from a strictly defensive system, and of casting the defense of Richmond on a bold offensive campaign.
Immediately on this decision the Army of Northern Virginia was put in motion for the invasion of the North.
After this brief explanation I will return to the enquiries of ----. Small raiding parties always infested the line of the Potomac when not occupied in force by the Federal army. The raiding corps, under Colonels Mosby and White, were conspicuously known for their bold raids and dashing onslaughts upon trains and unsuspecting parties on both sides of the Potomac. Raiding parties of a more formidable character, under Stuart and others, were also projected across the lines, creating in the body politic of the North as little sensation as sticking pins in the hide of the rhinoceros. In continuation of the answer to the 2d question, I will repeat in substance the remarks of General Lee, when the invasion of the North was under consideration: "Should we defeat General Hooker in a general engagement south of the Potomac any where in the vicinity of Washington, his shattered army would find refuge within the defenses of that city, as two Federal armies have previously done, and the fruits of victory would again be lost. But should we draw him far away from the defenses of his capital, and defeat him on a field of our own choosing, his army would be irretrievably lost, and the victory would be attended with results of the utmost importance." Gettysburg and York were designated as points suitable for such a battle. With such prospects in the range of possibility, any commander might be willing to risk for a time his communications, especially when the theatre of operations abounds in supplies, and the invading army is accompanied by a powerful cavalry. Such were the prospects of General Lee when he crossed the Potomac on his advance into Pennsylvania. He was sure of being able to supply his army should his communications be interrupted, and did not doubt his ability to open them whenever circumstances should require him to need them, as he subsequently did, without difficulty.
The chance of increasing the fighting qualities of the enemy by drawing him on his own soil was not considered by General Lee when he was forming his plan of invasion. Neither from history nor experience have I been able to learn that the fighting of a regular army is influenced by locality or country. I have been taught to believe that quality to be derived from its commander. It was not discovered that Federal troops fought better at Boonsboro', Sharpsburg and Gettysburg than they did at Gaines' Mill, Malvern Hill and Fredericksburg. Could the French troops have fought better in France than they did at the Pyramids, Marengo or Austerlitz? or did the English display less valor in Spain or in the Crimea than they would have done in England under their favorite leaders ?
3d. "The way in which the fights of the second of July were directed does not show the same co-ordination which ensured the success of the Southern arms at Gaines' Mill and Chancellorsville."
4th. "I do not understand why Lee, having gained some success on the second, but found the Federal position very strong, did not attempt to turn it by the south, which was its weak place, by extending his right so as to endanger Meade's communications with Washington."
5th. "The heroic but foolish attack of Pickett on the third should never have been attempted. Longstreet seems to think that it was imposed upon him against his will by Lee. General Early says distinctly, in a paper published by the Southern Historical Society, that Longstreet deferred it so long that the Second corps could not co-operate with it as it would have done if the attack had taken place early in the morning."
Since the battle of Gettysburg has been the theme of so much discussion, and is still the subject of enquiry, I will narrate some of the circumstances relative to that event, believing that the information sought by the above questions can be best imparted in that way.
While preparing for his campaign in Pennsylvania General Lee carefully considered every contingency that could mar success, except the possibility of tactical blunders of those who had always maintained his confidence by a prompt and intelligent execution of instructions. When, however, he had crossed the Potomac, the absence of his cavalry, caused by the fatal blunder of Stuart, which separated it from the army at the most critical time, obliged him to grope his way in the dark, and precipitated him, by the want of timely notice, into a premature engagement with the enemy. While waiting for information at Chambersburg, the first intelligence received of the movements of the enemy was his arrival at Emmettsburg. As had been previously concerted, General Lee ordered a rapid concentration of his forces at Gettysburg. Early in the forenoon of the first of July two Federal corps arrived at that place, and almost simultaneously the head of the Confederate columns arrived, and an engagement immediately ensued, which continued with great spirit until about four o'clock in the afternoon, when the Federal corps were signally defeated, and almost annihilated. General Lee arrived on the field near the close of the action. Perceiving the utter prostration of two Federal corps, and being aware that General Meade could not bring up all his forces before the afternoon of the next day, he determined to cast the fate of the campaign on the chance of an immediate battle.
By the close of the day all of Hill's and Ewell's corps had come up, and Longstreet's was only a few miles in rear.
Having formed his plan of attack, Hill and Ewell were put at once in position, while Longstreet bivouacked about four miles from the field of battle. The order was that Longstreet, on the right, should begin the attack as early as practicable on the second, and Ewell and Hill were to afford him vigorous co-operation. On the morning of the second Meade's position on Cemetery Ridge was not fully occupied, and, as had been expected, a large portion of his forces was still on the march.
If a vigorous attack had then been made, by all the chances of war, victory would have crowned the Confederate arms. But another blunder intervened, and the attack was delayed until four o'clock in the afternoon, when, after desperate fighting, a position was gained, which a few hours before could have been occupied without a blow. The blunder of a lieutenant who had never before failed him, being unexpected, could not be averted in time to prevent the evil consequences that followed. I think enough has been said to explain the causes of the failure of the Confederates on the second at Gettysburg.
From the nature of the country, the absence of cavalry and the proximity of an uncrippled enemy, the flank movement referred to was simply an absurdity. The attack of Pickett's division on the third has been more criticized, and is still less understood, than any other act of the Gettysburg drama. General Longstreet did not enter into the spirit of it, and consequently did not support it with his wonted vigor. It has been characterized as rash and objectless, on the order of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"; nevertheless it was not ordered without mature consideration, and on grounds that presented fair prospects of success. By extending his left wing west of the Emmettsburg road General Meade weakened his position by presenting a weak center, which, being penetrated, his wings would be isolated and paralyzed, so far as regarded supporting each other. A glance at a correct sketch of the Federal position on the third will sufficiently corroborate this remark, and had Pickett's division been promptly supported when it burst through Meade's center, a more positive proof would have been given than the features of the country, for his right wing would have been overwhelmed before the left could have disengaged itself from the woods and mountains and come to its relief.
- Very respectfully,
- A. L. Long,
- Military Secretary of General R. E. Lee.