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Pipe Creek Line what-if?

Discussion in 'Battle of Gettysburg' started by pamc153PA, May 2, 2009.

  1. pamc153PA

    pamc153PA Captain Forum Host

    Dec 28, 2008
    Suppose Meade had had to fall back to the Pipe Creek Line after Gettysburg? Would it have been defensible? Could a winning battle for the Union have happened there? What do you feel the outcome would have been?



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  3. PvtClewell

    PvtClewell Corporal

    May 20, 2008
    OK, I'll try to take a stab at this and get the discussion started.

    A few years ago, on a field trip to Washington DC from Gettysburg with the Civil War Institute, we took a back road through Taneytown and eventually crossed Big Pipe Creek.

    Where we crossed the creek was at the foot of a steep, heavily wooded elevation (probably the foot of Parr's Ridge?) which our bus had to downshift to climb. It was impressive defensive area.

    Check this site:

    And then click on 'Detailed Map of Pipe Creek Line' in section III. I remember going through Union Mills, so I think the route we took south would have been where Slocum would have been positioned on the Littlestown Pike.

    In my opinion, the line can be easily defended. It's a natural defensive position close to if not actually in the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains. It protects approaches to both Washington DC and Baltimore.

    If Meade takes this position, it's because he's already engaged Lee in Gettysburg. To my mind, Lee then has three reasonable options: (1) he can pursue Meade to the Pipe Creek Line and try to engage him there, which I think would be suicidal; (2) Lee can break off pursuit and try to continue on to Harrisburg, or perhaps Philadelphia, but then he'll have the AofP in his rear. Literally. Or (3), he can retreat back home the way he came.

    If Lee attacks the Union at the PCL, I think he risks utter destruction of his army. If the Confederates think Meade has the high ground at G-burg, then they ain't seen nuthin' yet.

    Lee's best chance to defeat Meade, OTOH, is if he catches a vulnerable Meade in transit for the PCL. Lee might have a chance if he can attack Meade while Meade is moving back to the PCL, with his several corps doubling back from G-burg and probably facing massive traffic jams and confusion while running into some of his late-arriving troops.

    On that same site I gave you, go to the bottom of the page and click on 'Touring the Pipe Creek Line' for some modern-day pictures. Most of those pictures are further east of where I was and depict a slightly flatter, more open terrain than I saw, but no less defensible.

    The PCL 'what-if' scenario has always been intriguing to me. Glad you asked it.
  4. trice

    trice Major

    May 2, 2006
    The Pipe Creek Line was a formidable position in many ways. There's an interesting article on it here.

    It was, however, a long and extensive position to occupy. I badly battered at Gettysburg, Meade might not have had enough organized troops "with the colors" to occupy it properly. OTOH, Lee might not have had enough organized troops "with the colors" to attack it properly, either.:smile:

  5. trice

    trice Major

    May 2, 2006
    One more choice, which Lee himself had spoken of earlier (not knowing anything about the PCL): pull back behind South Mountain, holding the gaps, and continue to forage on PA until Meade comes to get him.

    I'm not sure how serious Lee was about that, and I have always figured that unspoken in everything Lee did was a desire to smite the Union Army as hard as he could. But if Meade sets up at Big Pipe Creek and Lee sets up on South Mountain, Adams County becomes a No-Man's Land. This might get Stuart reunited with Lee and rested; the rest of the ANV can forage far and wide to the West as well as up-and-down the Cumberland Valley. This is the general situation Lee talks about in his forage scenario, when he seems to have felt he could remain north of the Potomac into September.

    W. Richardson likes this.
  6. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

    Feb 20, 2005
    Near Kankakee
    From what I'm recollecting, there was really no easy way around the Pipe Creek Line. It was go through it or go home.

    Although Lee could have lived off the country until well past the harvests, I don't see him doing that. He had or would have had not brought the AotP to a decisive battle on ground of his choosing. He just can't go traipsing around in Pennsylvania while the Confederacy is starving and he's not protecting Richmond.

    reading48 and W. Richardson like this.
  7. Elennsar

    Elennsar Colonel

    May 14, 2008
    However, the threat of what he might do in Pennsylvania or Maryland is going to - should the Army of the Potomac be severely beaten - draw troops away from other areas (for instance, Dix) to reinforce it.

    So if successful in doing that, the best defense of Richmond would be threatening stuff up North - and as for the starving Confederacy, he can send the herds and so on down south under escort from some of the cavalry while keeping his main force where it is, more or less. Pulling back to Virginia won't help that issue, however.

    As for the Pipe Creek line: My educated guess, after reading Trice's link is that Meade would probably be stretched too thin to man it properly - so it would be a problem.

    As for Lee - its entirely possible that some (most?) of the forces left behind (Ransom's division, for instance.) could be sent to join him - so that could lead to an interesting set of scenarios along the Pipe Creek Line or elsewhere.

    But that's a seperate what if from "what if Meade occupied the PCL", just one that I feel is worth mentioning.
  8. PvtClewell

    PvtClewell Corporal

    May 20, 2008

    I believe we both posted the same Web site about the PCL. I feel honored. Makes me feel my research is corroborated. :smile:

    Anyhow, one of the keys to the PCL, I think, is the extensive road network that would allow Meade to shuffle troops from one threatened area to another — just as he did at G-burg. He might have been stretched, but I think he could have met the demands. He really would have no choice with Baltimore and Washington DC not all that far away. I still think the PCL would be too strong for Lee to crack. He'd be like a wave crashing against rocks.

    You know, I thought about the South Mountain option, and I think it's a creditable one. But Vicksburg has just fallen, and having Lee on the west side of South Mountain would be intolerable. Could not some of those western Vicksburg troops be released to pressure Lee from the west and force the issue?
  9. trice

    trice Major

    May 2, 2006
    I think he probably could, and you are right that the position is a very strong one for defense. The one projected, though, covered about 20 miles with 7 full-strength corps. If Meade is to pull back here after July 2 or 3, he may not have enough troops to hold it all.

    In that case, he has to make choices. If he is going to cheat somewhere, it will probably be on the eastern flank, towards Baltimore. Coming from Gettysburg, it is easier for Lee to strike at Taneytown, and so Meade would have to lean his strength that way.

    Because of the strength of the position, the real danger is that Lee will concentrate most of his strength against a single point to overwhelm it. Lee will also be reduced in strength, and so cannot spread his force enough to threaten multiple points along the line.

    That's the only real source of veteran troops, but it will take a few weeks to get them up to central PA. Grant returned Burnside's troops after Vicksburg fell, but it was August before they were up and ready to participate in the attack towards Knoxville. Troops from Grant have to come up the Mississippi and maybe the Ohio to get to some point where they can get on a RR.

    They might decide to grab a division or two from Rosecrans after Tullahoma. Coming on the heels of his success, that would be difficult, and Rosecrans might have been the "best" in the war at digging in his heels and delaying what his superiors wanted done. Sherman loaned A. J. Smith's Corps to Rosecrans in Missouri in August of 1864, and it was supposed to be sent back in the first half of September. It arrives in Nashville for Thomas around November 30, and Grant finally had to order Smith to ignore all further orders from Rosecrans to get it done.

    That means that, realistically, there are no troops from Burnside/Grant/Rosecrans available in middle PA until late July. If the Union is going to attack Lee behind South Mountain, they are going to use the forces already in the East: Meade's AoP, Dix's troops, the WV forces, the militia around Harrisburg, and probably a bunch of new regiments drawn from wherever they could lay hands on them.

    If Lee has his army together (Stuart has rejoined), that's a very tough task. Attacking over the mountain through the gaps will be ugly. Coming around through the north end of the Cumberland Valley will be time consuming and problematic. Not enough force to the West to press Lee. Any force trying to cut Lee's LOC is vulnerable to Lee turning on them so quickly they cannot escape.

    I doubt Lee could have stayed until September, as he mentioned. I doubt the Union could have driven him out before late July at best if he had stood on the defensive.

  10. whitworth

    whitworth 2nd Lieutenant

    Jun 18, 2005
    Pipe Creek

    Was previously selected, as an excellent defensive line, prior to Gettysburg. Meade and the other professional Union generals weren't amateurs at this stage of the war.

    Pipe Creek was in the Union army's wheel well for resupply from Baltimore with supply by rail and wagon. The supply line would have been even shorter than the one at Gettysburg.

    Lee would still have less than one good battle's supply of artillery ammunition. He would not have gotten resupplied from Virginia.
  11. W. Richardson

    W. Richardson 1st Lieutenant

    Jun 29, 2011
    Mt. Gilead, North Carolina

    Greetings Ole,

    Lee could have devastated middle & western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, maybe even extreme eastern Ohio, while Meade is entrenched a PCL...............How long would the Northern public put up with Lee in Pennsylvania, Lincoln would be hearing them howl, he would be feeling the pressure from the peace democrats................IF Lee could stay long enough and wreck enough havoc........................BUT......

    You brought up a terrific point, and one often overlooked....................

    Richmond was left unprotected !!!

    It could not be left unprotected for the amount of time it would take for the public, and the peace democrats to make Lincoln feel the pressure and force Meade to act........

    So as you stated and I agree, the PCL was either go through it or go home.

    Gettysburg Cupola.jpg
  12. Irishtom29

    Irishtom29 Private

    Jul 21, 2008
    St. Augustine
    As I recall it took several days for a telegram from Washington to reach Grant at Vicksburg as the message had to come down from Cairo by boat. But the fantasy of Grant, Ord, Sherman and McPherson with their tough and victorious westerners (leaving the Ninth and Sixteenth Corps to hold the river say) pitching into AoNV is certainly an interesting one.

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