The Battle of Gettysburg

THIS book comprises the pages numbered 451 to 694, both inclusive, of the third volume of the Comte de Paris’s History in the American edition. It contains, in addition to the appendices to the larger volume, which have been revised and improved, a return of the casualties in both armies in the battle of Gettysburg. Unfortunately, but one map is added, and that is the one which illustrates the campaign of General Pope, and is found opposite page 249 of the second volume of the History. When we say that this map does not reach to the upper Potomac, we have said enough to point out its utter insufficiency for the use of the reader in a study of the movements of the Federal and Confederate armies, in Maryland and Pennsylvania, which led to the great struggle at Gettysburg. These manœuvres were most interesting and of prime importance; the count describes them at length ; yet the reader who has incautiously purchased this book as presumably a complete guide to the whole campaign finds himself reduced to the necessity of borrowing some school atlas, if he would arrive at any understanding of the text. This is, in our judgment, simply inexcusable on the part of the publishers.

We have long ago, in the pages of The Atlantic for September, 1883, expressed our general views on the count’s third volume, from which, as we have said, this book is taken. We desire again to bear testimony to the freshness and animation of the count’s style, and to the general impartiality of the narrative as respects the contending parties. At the same time, the faults which we pointed out in our former notice strike us on a second reading quite as forcibly as they did at the first. What we particularly refer to now regards the count’s treatment of the part played by General Meade in the whole affair.

To begin with, the count’s portrait of General Meade (page 72) is hardly to be recognized. “ Quiet, modest, reticent, but possessing a correct judgment, a mind clear and precise, with a coolness which never faltered in the midst of danger,” etc., — all this is a picture of a very different sort of person from General George G. Meade. Meade was a quick, active, energetic, masterful man, possessing great decision of character, and by no means devoid of ambition ; prompt in everything, brave to a fault, even rash so far as his personal conduct was concerned ; exacting with his subordinates and never sparing of himself; having exceedingly clear ideas of what he intended to do, and an exceedingly vigorous determination to do himself, and to see to it that other people did, what he had planned should be done. With all this, he was yet a prudent man in the management of the army, and sooner than fight a battle against his judgment would brave the indignation of the people and the government at his supposed irresolution or indifference. In fact, Meade was anything but an irresolute man; still less was he lukewarm in the cause. His Gettysburg campaign proves this; nor does “ the campaign of manœuvres ” in the autumn of 1863, when really understood, show anything to the contrary.

Besides this difficulty of misunderstanding the character of General Meade, under which the count labors, he is also evidently under the influence of a sort of romantic admiration for General Hooker. There was, as every one knows, a great deal of this feeling in the army, and it was deserved, to a large extent, certainly. Yet who that knows the miserable story of Chancellorsville can feel any doubt of Hooker’s incapacity to command the army ? Let any one recall that ill-starred campaign, where the army was compromised by the hesitations of the commanding general before the first shot was fired; where the most promising initiative was willfully renounced and the Northern forces were ordered to retire into the thickets of the Wilderness, only to be pounded at Lee’s convenience until they recrossed the Rappahannock, — let any one, we say, recall all this, and he will marvel at the count’s references to General Hooker as to an officer whose boldness and capacity furnish a telling contrast to the over-caution of his successor. This attitude of the count’s is the more extraordinary as he seems to be in possession of all the facts necessary to a correct judgment.

For example, the count is speaking of Hooker’s plan, after he had crossed the Potomac, of marching upon Harper’s Ferry and Sharpsburg with one corps, supported by the Harper’s Ferry garrison under French, thus menacing Lee’s line of communications. This movement was abandoned by Hooker as soon as he learned that Halleck refused to allow him to make use of the garrison of Harper’s Ferry ; but it might have been taken up again by Meade, to whom Halleck permitted what had been refused to Hooker, — the disposal of French’s command. Meade, however, had his reasons for adopting another course, — that of marching northward. He thought it more probable that the enemy would cross the Susquehanna, occupy Harrisburg, and move on Philadelphia. If this was really in contemplation, Lee, it was plain, must have arranged to drop his communications, and a march to Sharpsburg or Williamsport would have no effect whatever in checking the invasion of the North. Hooker said the Susquehanna could not be crossed, — Lee had left his bridge-equipage behind, — but Meade, as the count says, “ did not agree with Hooker on this point ; and very justly, for it now appears that Lee, taking advantage of the shallow waters of the Susquehanna, was ready to make a portion of his army cross to the other side of the river to seize Harrisburg. The possession of this city would in fact have secured him a permanent pass, together with the means of penetrating to the very heart of Pennsylvania.” Here, then, we have, clearly stated, a difference of opinion between the two officers, and it appears that, in the judgment of our historian, Meade was right and Hooker mistaken on the point at issue, it is therefore not only surprising, but even astonishing, to find the count saying in the very next sentence, “ But, although he could freely dispose of French’s troops, Meade did not dare to follow out the bolder and more promising plan his predecessor had conceived, the execution of which Halleck had prevented. ” The peculiar thing about this piece of criticism is that the count admits that Hooker’s plan was based upon erroneous information, and that, had it been carried out, there was nothing to prevent Lee from knocking at the gates of Philadelphia, while the Army of the Potomac, at Hagerstown and Sharpsburg, was vainly awaiting his return into Virginia. Yet he still calls Hooker’s plan “ bolder and more promising,” and his very reprehensible choice of words seems to intimate that it was a lack of courage on Meade’s part which led him to reject it. This insinuation is utterly unwarranted; and we are free to say that we consider the making of it no light matter. It springs from the count’s originally mistaken notion of General Meade, which leads him wrongly and most unfairly to attribute his refusing to take a certain step to timidity, while in reality his action was dictated by a correct knowledge of the facts, a clear head, and a spirit of prompt and wise decision.

A similar tone pervades the count’s narrative of the events of the 1st of July. It is a tone of disparagement, frequently of manifestly unjust disparagement, of General Meade. Thus, while the count, when treating directly (pages 70, 80) of the orders of June 30th, which directed the first and eleventh corps toward Gettysburg, speaks of this as judicious, he yet, in criticising (page 122) the events of the 1st of July, says that “the dispatch of two army corps to near the town [Gettysburg] was an error which could only be excused on the score of his [Meade’s] ignorance of the latest movements of the enemy.” Now, even if this opinion of the count’s were correct, he entirely fails to convict Meade of any “ error for he does not pretend that he showed any lack of diligence in ascertaining “ the latest movements of the enemy,” and if he acted wisely on the information he had he is not chargeable with “ error.” But in point of fact, Meade’s dispositions were abundantly adequate. Had Reynolds not been killed, or had Howard not committed the fatal mistake of keeping his own corps (the eleventh) out in the open, when he saw that its right would inevitably he rolled up by Early’s troops advancing from York. — a mistake the consequences of which were rendered yet more serious by his folly and obstinacy in not ordering promptly a retreat of the first corps to Cemetery Hill the moment the eleventh had given way, — the first day’s fight would without doubt have been a success for the Federal arms. There was nothing to prevent Howard’s retiring the two corps, unbroken and in perfect order, to the strong hills back of the town, where there was not the least question of their ability to hold their ground until the rest of the army came up. The count does indeed remark (pages 115, ] 16) on Howard’s bad judgment, but he does not make it so clear as he should do that the loss of the battle was due entirely to Howard’s incapacity.

Again, what can the count mean by this ? “ From the moment that Meade hesitated about taking the advance against Lee with all his forces,” etc. How, with the itinerary before him of the various corps of the Army of the Potomac, can the count accuse Meade of having hesitated to advance? The charge is simply absurd.

Furthermore, with the too evident purpose of minimizing Meade’s share in the campaign, the count, referring to the concentration of the army, says (page 130), “The concentration, thus commenced by the initiative action of the several chiefs, even before it had been decided on by Meade,” etc. But the count himself has just said (page 130), “There was no necessity of making any changes in the orders already issued2 to enable the whole army to march upon Gettysburg, except in two instances, the fifth and sixth corps.” There is nothing whatever to show that any of the corps commanders did anything but obey Meade’s orders ; yet it is more than implied that it was due to their sagacity, and not to Meade’s, that the army was got together in season.

But the count is chargeable, not only with willfully ignoring General Meade’s directing hand in the movements which led to the concentration of the army, but with making the unaccountable and gratuitous suggestion that Meade’s orders to his corps commanders, and especially to Sickles, were contradictory.

Speaking of Sickles at the moment when, about noon of the 1st of July, he heard from Howard of the action then in progress at Gettysburg, he says (page 127), “ His marching orders, dated the day previous, directed him to make preparations to occupy the town ; Meade’s instructions, on the contrary, forwarded in the morning, marked out for him a retrograde march toward Pipe Creek. In short, he learned that, subsequently to the sending of these instructions, a battle had commenced, in which two corps might have to struggle against the whole of the enemy’s army. Among so many contradictory directions, Sickles, always eager for a fight, could not hesitate ; he determined to hasten to the assistance of his comrades.” This is a most misleading statement, plainly intended to glorify Sickles, who, in the face of his orders, as the count would have us believe, marched to the sound of the cannon. But there is no truth whatever in this pretense about Meade’s orders being contradictory. It is certainly the fact that, to use the count’s language, the circular order of July 1st “marked out for him [Sickles] a retrograde march toward Pipe Creek,” but that order contained this explicit direction : “ The time for falling back can only be developed by circumstances. Whenever such circumstances arise as would seem to indicate the necessity for falling back, and assuming the general line indicated [that of Pipe Creek], notice of such movement will at once be communicated.” No such notice had been communicated to General Sickles ; he was therefore to continue his march on the Emmittsburg road; and his obedience to Howard’s urgent call, so far from being prompted by exceptional zeal or insight, was the most obvious of all military obligations. The circular order of July 1st was a preparatory order only, and was carefully worded accordingly. No one reading it with attention can regard it as anything else. The retrograde movement was not to commence until due notice thereof should have been communicated to all the corps commanders. We are therefore surprised and pained at this statement of the count’s; it does gross injustice to General Meade, and it is really difficult to see how it can represent the sincere opinion of the historian.

The count’s treatment of the famous controversy regarding Sickles’s conduct at Gettysburg in posting his corps out on the Emmittsburg road is extremely unsatisfactory, to say the least of it. Sickles, like Hooker, is one of the count’s heroes, for whom every excuse must be made. The facts, as the count gives them, are these : On the evening of the 1st of July, Geary’s division held the extreme left of our line, and (page 134) two of his regiments occupied Little Round Top ; on his right was that portion of the third corps (Sickles’s) which had arrived. The next morning at five o’clock, Geary, acting under orders. left his position for one on the right of the line, and at seven o’clock Sickles was directed to take the position which Geary had left. Soon afterwards the rest of his corps came up. “ Towards nine o’clock Sickles occupied the position designated by Meade, but as he had only deployed one of his two divisions, he could not reach beyond the base of the Little Round Top, and did not set foot upon the hill itself ” (page 141). At this point the reader, naturally expecting either some reason why Sickles deployed only one of his two divisions, or some criticism on him for this course, is surprised to find the count blaming Meade for “ having entrusted a line of too great an extent to a single corps.” The count then goes on to tell us that Sickles, dissatisfied with the tactical points of the line he was holding between Little Round Top and the southern extremity of the line of the second corps, informed Meade that he desired to advance all his forces to the Emmittsburg road. Meade “ merely repeated [page 153] to Sickles the order to remain in the positions taken before by Geary, and, according to an eye-witness, he even pointed out to him with his finger the hillocks of the Round Tops as the point on which he should align himself.” One would suppose that this would satisfy our historian, but it apparently does not, judging by the following rather peculiar sentence: “ This was an error on his [Meade’s] part; for if he entertained any confidence in Sickles’s sagacity, he should have taken his objections into consideration, and in the contrary case, to control them [sic] without delay.” Meade, however, at Sickles’s request, sent Hunt, the chief of artillery, with him to examine the line. But this officer refused “ to pronounce a formal opinion regarding the occupation of this new line,” which Sickles was so desirous to adopt, and on his return to headquarters told Meade he ought to go over the ground himself before approving Sickles’s proposed movement. It is, therefore, perfectly clear from the count’s own narrative that Sickles knew that he had obtained no permission from Meade to advance to the road. Yet the count concludes with this extraordinary statement: “Being left in a stale of uncertainty3 by Hunt’s departure, he [Sickles] determines at last to take possession of the Eminittsburg road as far as the Orchard, with his whole corps, a little before two o’clock.”

Such an unexpected conclusion fills one with bewilderment, not to say distrust. One may fairly enough try to enter into Sickles’s state of mind : he unquestionably thought the line he was holding was a very weak one; he expected to be attacked shortly ; the Peach Orchard and the Emmittsburg road looked very attractive ; he no doubt acted as he thought was best. But to gloss over the fact, as the count does, that, in doing as he did, Sickles disobeyed orders, that he took a most serious step, for taking which he had several times in vain requested authority from the commander in chief, is really inexcusable. The truth is, Sickles, acting on his own responsibility, and in direct disobedience to General Meade, took up an untenable position, and in consequence not only lost half of his own corps, but tor hours imperiled the safety of the army.

It is, however, satisfactory to find that in his final summary the count admits (page 238) that Meade “ turned to excellent account ” the strong position near Gettysburg, and that “ he knew how to use all the forces under his command.”He makes, to be sure, several criticisms on his conduct, some of which seem to us to be far-fetched, and others very questionable, while one or two offer interesting matter for discussion and investigation. But we have not complained, and we do not intend to complain, of the count for criticising General Meade’s measures, but only for the fault-finding and grudging tone in which he makes his criticisms, Meade’s position was one of great responsibility and difficulty ; his task was rendered specially hard by the recentness of his own appointment to the command of the army, by the inexcusable and very serious mistakes of Howard and Sickles, — to which alone the losses and defeats of the first two days were due, — by the protraction of the terrible contest throughout three days of hard fighting, and lastly by the loss of several of his ablest and most energetic corps commanders.

To our thinking, General Meade’s intelligent, consistent, firm, and courageous management of the army during that trying week deserves cordial and grateful recognition, and we are sorry that our distinguished foreign historian has, in our judgment, failed to do him full justice.

  1. The Battle of Gettysburg. From the History of the Civil War in America. By the COMTE DE PARIS. Philadelphia : Porter & Coates.
  2. The italics are ours.
  3. The italics are ours.