Lee At Gettysburg: Accidental Collision of Two Armies?

Think Again Michael Busby

Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

Many paragraphs have been written about the War Between The States as arm-chair generals of all persuasions and ages over the intervening years of Union occupation have sought to explain why this, or that, either happened, or did not happen. Probably the topic receiving the most attention from these arm-chair generals has been the seemingly inexplicable reason General Lee invaded the north in the last days of spring 1863, without his cavalry as a screen for the Army of Northern Virginia. On the face of it, General Lee seems to have committed a military blunder of the most amateurish kind, and of a magnitude unimaginable whose consequences dashed the hopes of a new nation. Certainly, such a blunder can explain why the results were disastrous for the Army of Northern Virginia, right?

How could General Lee decide to maneuver his large army into enemy territory without his very effective cavalry commanded by the venerable General Jeb Stuart, at his side? Pundits who espouse upon the subject, especially those who haunt university hallways, continually fall into the trap of applying the conventional rules of warfare to the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia while not understanding General Lee, yet trying to unravel the mysteries of Gettysburg. Inevitably, they reach the wrong conclusions. For example:

From the pen of Dr. Ernest Butner (Napoleonic Arithmetic): “Did not the Battle of Gettysburg commence because the entire Army of Northern Virginia was advancing in a Reconnaissance in Force, because the cavalry was not in contact with Lee?“

Professor Butner goes on to say: “Lee was nailed down to a battle line of his enemy's choosing and called upon to fight without sufficient information of either enemy disposition or the battlefield. This is what generally occurs when the above maneuvering principles are not adhered to.”

Note: A well-known truism of the time when maneuvering a Napoleonic type military force: always keep the cavalry in communication with the forward guard, the main body, and the rear guard of the army. The cavalry were the eyes and ears of the army and


Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

reported to the army command the location and strength of enemy forces and the nature of the terrain in front of the army. From such information, the commander could decide where and when to maneuver – not always for battle - which would produce satisfactory results.

The above comments from Butner are typical of those comments made by learned individuals who look at a small period of time through a “spyglass.” (People with Phds and politicians seem particularly adept at this technique when examining important issues.) By spyglass, I am referring to those old monocular optical pieces popular with military officers for looking over a physical situation to assess the ground upon which they are contemplating, for some supposedly military reason. (However, they may be “examining” the young women bathing in the stream, though). Through the spyglass you can clearly see a small portion of the physical layout laying before you, but due to the “tunnel” effect caused by the long brass barrel, you have very limited vision of the whole field. Therefore, you get a distorted perspective of the whole when you focus the glass on one specific place, only. When people use the same technique to look at history, it is called, tunnel vision. No surprise there, eh? For many years, everyone who has studied Gettysburg has had tunnel vision. I hope to remove the spyglass from your vision in this short diatribe.

Why do professors and arm-chair generals assume the indomitable General Robert E. Lee went into the Gettysburg battle not knowing what he was doing? Any serious student of the War Between The States who has diligently studied the period 1861 – 1865 should know General Lee did not do anything unless he knew what he was getting into. His detailed planning extended from his military planning to his personal life. Although it may not seem obvious, General Lee was also a cautious man. He was cautious in the sense he did not move his army unless there was compelling reason for such movement then he maneuvered to gain the maximum advantage possible. He always did everything he could to insure his men would not suffer defeat, even coming to the fore of the battle on a few memorable occasions to snatch victory from the enemy when defeat seemed inevitable.


Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

To believe General Lee did not know what he was doing in June/July 1863, a studious and reasonable person would have to assume General Lee had lost his ability through some mental deficiency to command an army. So, why assume his reasoning and logic departed from him in the spring and summer of 1863 when great armies were marching and history was in the making, and great and not-so-great men were writing the text? Old age? Senility? Desperation?

When the student, or professor, only looks at the immediate events leading up to Gettysburg they unfortunately come to the conclusion General Lee, for whatever reason, made the greatest tactical error of his career when he marched the heroic Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River and set in motion the dramatic collision of the two greatest armies the world had ever known, with disastrous results for the Army of Northern Virginia.

Yet, when General Lee planned the campaign, he knew the risks attendant to invasion, but he also knew he stood to bring the two opposing armies together into a colossal battle that could turn the tide of the war in favor of the Confederacy, perhaps even compelling a war weary north to the peace table. (But, a vindictive federal Presidential cabinet never wanted a negotiated peace.)

In the fall of 1862, General Grant was maneuvering to eventually close in on Vicksburg. General Lee could see the handwriting on the wall. While armies, both north and south, went into winter quarters in the late fall of 1862, General Lee began planning the momentous invasion that would either bring victory, or defeat to southern arms. General Lee always planned for victory.

In the fall of 1862, Vicksburg was on the mind of most military men. Many rivers from both east and west of the great Mississippi flowed into it, bringing with their replenishing waters, boats of all kinds and sizes carrying all manner of cargo to the ports along the river, and especially to Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. These three cities were


Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

very important to the survival of the Confederacy. For in these ports were the terminus of railroads which carried trade goods back and forth to the interior far beyond the banks of the rivers. The rivers and railroads formed lines of communications which were important to the survival of the Confederacy. They were extremely important for the swift transportation of war material and troops.

General Lee saw Grant moving on Vicksburg, which was already besieged by Farragut's ships, in the coming spring campaign. General Lee understood the strategic importance of relieving the pressure Grant with his dogged determination was applying to Confederate hopes.

Therefore, General Robert E. Lee said, in a letter to President Jefferson Davis, written in the late fall of 1862, that he would move on Maryland, then Pennsylvania, the following spring, as soon as the weather and roads allowed his army to move. He explained to President Davis such a move would relieve pressure on Vicksburg as the U.S. War Department, in their usual panic mode, would recall troops from the western front back to the east to defend Washington City (D.C.), as soon as they perceived it threatened.

Another reason General Lee gave for invading the north was the resulting respite from war and destruction the Shenandoah Valley would receive as Union forces were withdrawn to keep them from being surrounded and to protect Washington City, allowing the huge valley’s farmers time to harvest their spring crops which would be of great benefit to the Confederacy (and especially Virginia). He went on to explain the vagaries of war were such that he felt the Army of Northern Virginia would be victorious on the battlefield, resulting in the probable evacuation of Washington City, and perhaps the end of the war.

He went on to specify he would give battle in northern Virginia first in order to compel the union forces to move back toward Washington City, giving him the room he needed to take the Army of Northern Virginia behind the western mountains to begin his ‘end


Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

around” maneuver in order to invade Pennsylvania. (Chancellorsville was the prelude to invasion.)

General Lee knew as the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Maryland, the Army of the Potomac would maneuver to the west of Washington City to keep it covered. He also knew as he moved on into Pennsylvania the Army of the Potomac would swing north of Washington City, still keeping the city protected. He knew as a result of his maneuvering he could bring to battle the two armies at a place of his choosing. All he needed to do was either sit still for a few days, or begin a march toward Washington City, and the Army of the Potomac would concentrate to give battle. He decided to sit still a few days near Gettysburg but, he made that decision eight months before the actual deed.

In his letter to President Davis in the fall of 1862, General Lee stated the two armies would clash on a line centered at either Harrisburg, or Gettysburg. He clearly stated in the letter he preferred the Gettysburg line. The reasons he gave why he favored the Gettysburg line included the favorable terrain with the nearby western mountains protecting his long baggage trains from marauding union cavalry and the ability to retreat without severe loss behind the western mountains, if the result of the clash of arms was not favorable for the Confederacy.

Okay, so now you know General Lee planned to fight at Gettysburg many months before the actual battle occurred. So, a fair question is, if General Lee knew what he was about, why did he fail at Gettysburg?

In the fall of 1862 when he made his plans to invade Pennsylvania, he assumed his right hand man 1 , General Stonewall Jackson would be by his side throughout the 1863 campaign. I advocate if General Jackson had been at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have won a great victory, and possibly the war. (All one need do to confirm General Jackson’s abilities is look at the result General Jackson rendered at Chancellorsville.)


As General Jackson lay dying, General Lee sent a message to him through Chaplain Lacy, saying "Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: He has lost his left arm, but I my right."


Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

Certainly, General Lee made his plans with General Jackson and his “foot cavalry” in mind.

But, this is my interpretation of the material available and my reading of the situation.

What did General Lee think?

Ask him, yourself.

Although General Lee never penned a single line regarding the war, never wrote a memoir, never gave any speeches regarding the war and his participation in it, he gave to the world the answer to the question everyone asks now.

All everyone needed to do was to listen, but only one did (me!).

The answer lay in the last words he ever said, before he died from pneumonia, after suffering a stroke just days before.

As he lay on his deathbed October 12, 1870, he rose slightly and cried out in his delirium, “Tell Hill he must come up! Strike the tent2 ”, then he fell back onto his bed and died.

“Tell Hill he must come up!” was the exact same thing he said in the early morning of July 1, 1863 when the great battle hung in the balance as leading elements of General A.P. Hill’s corps prematurely engaged the leading elements of the Army of The Potomac. But, the sluggard General A.P. Hill, his full corps needed to completely sweep the Army of The Potomac from the field late that afternoon 3 and decisively turn the battle to unquestioned victory, was late to the fight with his full corps.

Some medical experts today claim the nature of General Lee’s illness – a stroke followed by pneumonia – prevented him from saying anything before he died. Yet, there are creditable eyewitnesses who claim he said those exact words, just moments from dying. Also, in the last moment of life, the mind and body can do amazing things. 3 All of my books are in storage so I cannot verify the number, but as I recall, the Army of Northern Virginia did capture 5,000 prisoners the first day.


Michael Busby http://www.scribd.com/doc/35168701/Lee-At-Gettysburg-Accidental-Collision-of-Two-Armies © 2011

So, bottom line is, General Lee knew what he was doing and he knew exactly where he was going to give battle in the summer of 1863. He knew he did not need his cavalry to screen his immediate movements during the invasion. He needed his cavalry to raid through Maryland and Pennsylvania, far to the east of his army, to the east of Washington City. The purpose of the raid was to draw Union cavalry forces away from his army so it could move more, or less, unhindered toward its destination with destiny with history.

General Lee knew the roads in and around Washington City, Maryland and Pennsylvania. He knew where the Army of the Potomac was going to move in response to his move into Maryland, then into Pennsylvania, using the mountains as his screen. He did not need his cavalry to tell him what he already knew.

Yep, General Lee called his shot eight months before he took it. The only thing he did not plan for was the loss of the peerless General Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Hill was no Jackson. But then, there was only one, and one only, great Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. If General Jackson had been present at Gettysburg, the Union army would have lost an entire corps the first day of battle, and no doubt that army would have lost the battle to save the Union.


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