Monday, April 18, 2011

Decisions at Gettysburg

Decisions at Gettysburg: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Campaign by Matt Spruill

Last Thursday at the Rocky Mountain Civil War Roundtable meeting Matt Spruill talked about his newest book, Decisions at Gettysburg. It was a great talk and having read the book since then it is also a great book. To be fair as a friend of Matt's I have read portions of the manuscript as he's worked on it. So I knew from the moment I got the book it was going to be a great book, but this was the first time I had seen it all put together, especially with the illustrations.

The idea for the book is that its one thing to know what happened at Gettysburg, that is what we all learn first. But it is more important to learn why the events happened as they did. There were many decisions made during the campaign and battle that left us with the Gettysburg we know today. Some of those decisions were more important than others, some had more influence on the direction the battle took than others. One thing Spruill stresses early is that changing the decision does not mean Lee could have won, just that the battle and campaign would have unfolded differently. Some of them might have lead Lee to victory but others might have made Meade's victory even more complete.

For example the first decision of the book is that Lee basically has four options in the summer of 1863. He can simply wait for the Union to regroup and attack him, he can maneuver in Virginia to bring on a battle, he can send send men West which would force him to be on the defensive, or he can launch an invasion of the North. Knowing Lee's character the obvious choice is that he will invade the North but it was a critical decision in that the other ones will not lead to a battle in rural Pennsylvania. The summer battle might then be Third Manassas or Second Chancellorsville, etc.

Another example is Sickles moving forward on the second day. His other option is to stay in position along Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. In his mind Sickles has valid reasons for moving forward, (the high ground of Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville that he held, was ordered off of and then was hammered by Confederate artillery probably came to mind as he saw the high ground of the Peach Orchard) but he still made the decision. The difference in flow of battle is that combat would have occurred closer to his other position. Also how would the Confederates have attacked this position? Would they have tried to flank it, or come straight at Sickles, or drive up the Emmittsburg Road like originally planned and hope Sickles doesn't come off the ridge to strike the flank. There likely would be zero mention of The Wheatfield or Peach Orchard, they would just be a wheatfield troops marched through or a peach orchard the Confederate artillery fired from.

An example of a decision that was not critical to the course of the battle is Howard leaving troops in reserve on Cemetery Hill when he first enters the fight on July 1. It was a good decision in that it gave the Union a reserve to fall back on. In an odd way its a good decision because it means less troops later trying to force their way through the congested streets on town when the Union had to retreat from its advanced positions. This is all just a commander doing a good job.

The critical decisions can also be strategic, operational, tactical and organizational. Two of the pre-campaign decisions Spruill discusses are Lee's reorganization of his army (going from two corps to three) and how the Army of the Potomac's artillery was reorganized after Chancellorsville. Both will have an impact on how the battle is fought and if the command structures had been left alone the battle probably would have unfolded differently.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to better understand why things happened at Gettysburg like they did.

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