Lee's biggest mistakes at Gettysburg

Wizard of Cozz

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Before I get into this I want to point out that I think Lee was one of the best generals in the war. I rank him and Grant as the two best generals, and I think that they did the best at managing and organizing large bodies of troops. Sherman and Thomas were also very good, it's hard to find another Confederate at the army level who could do this, there were some interesting options at Corps level I would have liked to have seen what they could do but didn't get opportunities for some reason or another (Longstreet, Jackson, Taylor are the three that come to mind). Having said all of that I don't necessarily feel that I'm a Lee homer, or really a homer for any one leader during the war. They all made mistakes, and honestly, it was extremely hard coordinating that many men at any one time.

Having said all of that I've recently purchased Sears Gettysburg book and have been re-reading some of my other purchases, and the once the battle commenced on July 1st, I feel like the biggest mistake Lee made that he had the most control over was not moving Ewell's Corps around to the right. He clearly was thinking this on both the nights of July 1st and 2nd, and while I understand why he didn't I don't necessarily agree with it. IF Lee had moves Ewell on the night July 1st he negates one of the Union's strongest advantages that they hold on the last 2 days of the battle and that is their use of interior lines. This would have also lengthened his line on Day 2 giving them a more opportunities to explore tactical advantages on the Union left flank. I just feel that the advantages outweight the disadvantages. From my readings Ewell convinced Lee he could be aggressive against Culp's Hill and in doing so could unravle the Union position. Obviously I have hindsight, but I'm trying to look at it from what they knew then, and I believe Lee should have went with his initial preference.

What are all of your thoughts??
 

johncla

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Before I get into this I want to point out that I think Lee was one of the best generals in the war. I rank him and Grant as the two best generals, and I think that they did the best at managing and organizing large bodies of troops. Sherman and Thomas were also very good, it's hard to find another Confederate at the army level who could do this, there were some interesting options at Corps level I would have liked to have seen what they could do but didn't get opportunities for some reason or another (Longstreet, Jackson, Taylor are the three that come to mind). Having said all of that I don't necessarily feel that I'm a Lee homer, or really a homer for any one leader during the war. They all made mistakes, and honestly, it was extremely hard coordinating that many men at any one time.

Having said all of that I've recently purchased Sears Gettysburg book and have been re-reading some of my other purchases, and the once the battle commenced on July 1st, I feel like the biggest mistake Lee made that he had the most control over was not moving Ewell's Corps around to the right. He clearly was thinking this on both the nights of July 1st and 2nd, and while I understand why he didn't I don't necessarily agree with it. IF Lee had moves Ewell on the night July 1st he negates one of the Union's strongest advantages that they hold on the last 2 days of the battle and that is their use of interior lines. This would have also lengthened his line on Day 2 giving them a more opportunities to explore tactical advantages on the Union left flank. I just feel that the advantages outweight the disadvantages. From my readings Ewell convinced Lee he could be aggressive against Culp's Hill and in doing so could unravle the Union position. Obviously I have hindsight, but I'm trying to look at it from what they knew then, and I believe Lee should have went with his initial preference.

What are all of your thoughts??
Not accounting for the different dynamics with two new corps commanders. The result was that Ewell and Hill didn’t get the firm direction they needed.

Also number two, mismanaging the cavalry.
 

Wizard of Cozz

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Not accounting for the different dynamics with two new corps commanders. The result was that Ewell and Hill didn’t get the firm direction they needed.

Also number two, mismanaging the cavalry.
I don't want to rehash the cavalry situation, as it's been debated here pretty well. There's plenty of blame for that to go around. I think it's pretty telling that Beverly Robertson was assigned to South Carolina shortly after the Gettysburg campaign. Lee never took a direct hand in Corps duties be they with Infantry or Cavalry commands. Robertson should have moved North when the Union army moved north, that would have placed Robertson and Jones close enough to have actually been able to do something during the battle. awhen Lee heard the Union was much closer than he though on June 28, from Longstreet's spy he recalled Jones and Robertson, but they were too far by that point to do anything constructive. Lee never trusted the "irregular cavalry" units. Longstreet and Lee I believe had made mention of leaving Hampton with the other cavalry. That would have been a wise choice obviously.
 

Tom Elmore

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Sounds good in theory. Meade was quite worried about his right flank and with good reason, so I suppose Lee could still hold the town and leave a sufficient force on his left to make a noisy demonstration in order to tie down a good number of Union troops. Johnson's fresh division arriving from the west around sundown on July 1 could just have easily moved to extend the right flank as it did the left flank. Johnson's division alone would have given Lee's right a much stronger punch on July 2, perhaps sufficient to secure a victory. It would split Ewell's corps and thus raise command and control issues, but Johnson was a seasoned, independent commander who liked to fight.
 

MichaelWinicki

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Jul 23, 2020
Before I get into this I want to point out that I think Lee was one of the best generals in the war. I rank him and Grant as the two best generals, and I think that they did the best at managing and organizing large bodies of troops. Sherman and Thomas were also very good, it's hard to find another Confederate at the army level who could do this, there were some interesting options at Corps level I would have liked to have seen what they could do but didn't get opportunities for some reason or another (Longstreet, Jackson, Taylor are the three that come to mind). Having said all of that I don't necessarily feel that I'm a Lee homer, or really a homer for any one leader during the war. They all made mistakes, and honestly, it was extremely hard coordinating that many men at any one time.

Having said all of that I've recently purchased Sears Gettysburg book and have been re-reading some of my other purchases, and the once the battle commenced on July 1st, I feel like the biggest mistake Lee made that he had the most control over was not moving Ewell's Corps around to the right. He clearly was thinking this on both the nights of July 1st and 2nd, and while I understand why he didn't I don't necessarily agree with it. IF Lee had moves Ewell on the night July 1st he negates one of the Union's strongest advantages that they hold on the last 2 days of the battle and that is their use of interior lines. This would have also lengthened his line on Day 2 giving them a more opportunities to explore tactical advantages on the Union left flank. I just feel that the advantages outweight the disadvantages. From my readings Ewell convinced Lee he could be aggressive against Culp's Hill and in doing so could unravle the Union position. Obviously I have hindsight, but I'm trying to look at it from what they knew then, and I believe Lee should have went with his initial preference.

What are all of your thoughts??
That's not a bad action (or inaction) to highlight as perhaps being his biggest failure.

Even if Ewell had sent Johnson's division to the Confederate right to serve as either part of the initial attack on the Union left or as a timely reserve wave of 6,000 soldiers behind Hood & McLaws and left Early's division facing Cemetery Hill, it would have made for an interesting addition to a Confederate assault that did some damage as it was.
 

Wizard of Cozz

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Sounds good in theory. Meade was quite worried about his right flank and with good reason, so I suppose Lee could still hold the town and leave a sufficient force on his left to make a noisy demonstration in order to tie down a good number of Union troops. Johnson's fresh division arriving from the west around sundown on July 1 could just have easily moved to extend the right flank as it did the left flank. Johnson's division alone would have given Lee's right a much stronger punch on July 2, perhaps sufficient to secure a victory. It would split Ewell's corps and thus raise command and control issues, but Johnson was a seasoned, independent commander who liked to fight.
Tom, I always find your opinions unbiased and thoughtful. Honestly, I wonder what is there to gain really by keeping any units on the east side of the town? I get that they tie down Union units, but they tied down Confederate Units as well. Better to anchor the confederate left against the town and move on the right, again hindsight is 20/20, but Lee seems like he was thinking this when he first went to talk to Ewell, but Ewell felt like he could take Culp's Hill but even when it was just being defended by Greene on the night of July 2nd the Confederates struggled against the position, it was just to strong.
 

MichaelWinicki

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Sounds good in theory. Meade was quite worried about his right flank and with good reason, so I suppose Lee could still hold the town and leave a sufficient force on his left to make a noisy demonstration in order to tie down a good number of Union troops. Johnson's fresh division arriving from the west around sundown on July 1 could just have easily moved to extend the right flank as it did the left flank. Johnson's division alone would have given Lee's right a much stronger punch on July 2, perhaps sufficient to secure a victory. It would split Ewell's corps and thus raise command and control issues, but Johnson was a seasoned, independent commander who liked to fight.

Yep, my thoughts as well.

Agreed on the command and control issues but we had seen in prior battles Confederate divisions seemed to be able to have the capacity to operate reasonably well when placed under the direction of another corps commander temporarily.

But yeah, give Longstreet another 6,000 troops, especially ones that had a reputation as fighters, could have potentially broken the Union left.
 

MichaelWinicki

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Tom, I always find your opinions unbiased and thoughtful. Honestly, I wonder what is there to gain really by keeping any units on the east side of the town? I get that they tie down Union units, but they tied down Confederate Units as well. Better to anchor the confederate left against the town and move on the right, again hindsight is 20/20, but Lee seems like he was thinking this when he first went to talk to Ewell, but Ewell felt like he could take Culp's Hill but even when it was just being defended by Greene on the night of July 2nd the Confederates struggled against the position, it was just to strong.

Good question.

I think having Early's division located east of town holds in place Union troops on both Cemetery and Culp's Hills. And not just token amounts. If Johnson's division had been sent to the Confederate right, I don't think the Union disposition of troops on the Union right would have changed much at all.
 

Tom Elmore

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Tom, I always find your opinions unbiased and thoughtful. Honestly, I wonder what is there to gain really by keeping any units on the east side of the town? I get that they tie down Union units, but they tied down Confederate Units as well. Better to anchor the confederate left against the town and move on the right, again hindsight is 20/20, but Lee seems like he was thinking this when he first went to talk to Ewell, but Ewell felt like he could take Culp's Hill but even when it was just being defended by Greene on the night of July 2nd the Confederates struggled against the position, it was just to strong.
Keeping a Confederate force west of town and in front of Culp's Hill threatened the Baltimore Pike, which the Federals could not afford to lose. We are only talking about Early's already weakened division, which would have had to remain idle on Lee's left anyway, even if the Confederates had relinquished the town, and that would have made things much easier for the Federals on their right, allowing them to free up additional troops to bolster their center and left.
 
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Wizard of Cozz

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Keeping a Confederate force west of town and in front of Culp's Hill threatened the Baltimore Pike, which the Federals could not afford to lose. We are only talking about Early's already weakened division, which would have had to remain idle on Lee's left anyway, even if the Confederates had relinquished the town, which would have made things much easier for the Federals on their right, allowing them free up additional troops to bolster their center and left.
Good insight, that makes sense, and if he could make himself look larger than he is, the Union might not know that the Confederates have moved Johnson's division. Honestly, I would move Johnson, Rodes, and Ewell around to the right and file them either behind Longstreet or to the right of Hill. Have Pender Anchor against the town, and Anderson next to him. This would give more unity of Command, and Early would operate basically independently on the Confederate left with his division. Early was an experienced division commander and could be trusted in independent operations, as much as any other division commander in the army.
 

RedRover

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E. Porter Alexander thought, in hindsight, that Lee's main effort should have been entirely thrown against Cemetery Hill on the first or second day...

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And that by July 3, again in hindsight, only Cemetery Hill was vulnerable to an assault of artillery and infantry as Lee intended to deliver, but that was not seen at the time by Lee...

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General Lee's thoughts also hinged on intelligence failure... which he principally cast upon himself...

In his first notice of the battle of Richmond, July 4, Gen. Lee reported that on July 2nd he attempted to "dislodge" the federals from their position and failed, and attempted to do so again on the 3rd (Pickett's charge etc.) and again failed. And Lee claimed in Jan. 64 that Pickett's charge was made given Longstreet's successes on the right in the evening of July 2nd, before dark...
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July 31, 1863, Gen. Lee wrote Davis from Camp Culpeper, VA:

“Mr PRESIDENT
......The delay that will necessarily occur in receiving official reports has induced me to make for the information of the Dept: a brief outline of operations of the army, in which however I have been unable to state the conduct of troops or officers. It is sufficient to show what was done & what was not done. No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public—I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess & valour. It however in my opinion achieved under the guidance of the Most High a general success, though it did not win a victory. I thought at the time that the latter was practicable. I still think if all things could have worked together it would have been accomplished. But with the knowledge I then had, & in the circumstances I was then placed, I do not know what better course I could have pursued. With my present knowledge, & could I have foreseen that the attack on the last day would have failed to drive the enemy from his position, I should certainly have tried some other course. What the ultimate result would have been is not so clear to me. Our loss has been very heavy, that of the enemys is proportionally so. His crippled condition enabled us to retire from the Country, comparatively unmolested. The unexpected state of the Potomac was our only embarrassment.
I will not trespass upon your Excys. time more. With prayers for your health & happiness, & the recognition by your gratified country of your great services.
I remain truly & sincerely yours
R. E. LEE."

In his subsequent official reports Lee states his "knowledge" was the critical failure, and not any particulary inability of his commanders to act in concert together (he was their commander). The day he wrote the above, his first report on the battle was sent, which states:

"The enemy...had strengthened his lines with earthworks. The morning [July 3] was occupied in necessary preparations, and the battle recommenced in the afternoon of the 3d, and raged with great violence until sunset. Our troops succeeded in entering the advanced works of the enemy, and getting possession of some of his batteries, but our artillery having nearly expended its ammunition, the attacking columns became exposed to the heavy fire of the numerous batteries near the summit of the ridge, and, after a most determined and gallant struggle, were compelled to relinquish their advantage, and fall back to their original positions with severe loss."

In his January, 1864 official report, General Lee states of Pickett's/Pettigrew's charge, the cause of the lack of artillery support which he evidently expected for the charge...

"The troops moved steadily on, under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the main attack being directed against the enemy's left center. His batteries reopened as soon as they appeared. Our own [artillery] having nearly exhausted their ammunition in the protracted cannonade that preceded the advance of the infantry, were unable to reply, or render the necessary support to the attacking party. Owing to this fact, which was unknown to me when the assault took place, the enemy was enabled, to throw a strong force of infantry against our left, already wavering under a concentrated fire of artillery from the ridge in front, and from Cemetery Hill, on the left."

That artillery support being "necessary" the charge failed. He appears to be suggesting that had he known this he would not have allowed the attack to proceed.

On August 8, Gen. Lee sent the following request or relief from command... noting he had become too "dull" to discern the true situation from the eyes of others...

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All that said, Lee's aide Charles Marshall suggested that it was rather striking that Genl. Longstreet did not report to Lee that the necessary artillery support for Pickett's charge could not be delivered before the infantry was advanced... and consequently the Genl. only found out after the failure. Consequently, the general (from his own words) was denied the opportunity to "have foreseen that the attack on the last day would have failed to drive the enemy from his position" and consequently "certainly have tried some other course..."
 
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Wizard of Cozz

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It's always so easy in hindsight to criticize decisions that Generals make. It's a different matter, knowing what they knew then. Day 2 especially was a close rung thing, and Lee clearly was expecting more than 1/2 of his army to attack that day (Hood, McLaws, 3/5 Anderson, 2/4 Early, and 3/4 Johnson). If Pender, Rodes, and Gordon from Early's division make their assaults as planned, we most likely are talking about a different Gettysburg. I've always wondered what A.P. Hill actually did during the battle, it's hard to find anything, and part of that falls on Lee, but Hill was just a body.
 

Irishtom29

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So if Lee does something different what does Meade do differently in response? Lee ran his army poorly in the real event and Hill ran his corps poorly in the real event and I doubt that would have changed in any event. And in the real event Meade ran his army very well, I doubt that would've changed in any event.

This leads me to the conclusion that on the morning of the 2nd Lee's best move was to consider the campaign finished and vamoose.
 

neyankee61

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Tom hit it on the head. Meade was terribly concerned about the Baltimore Pike. It was his main supply link. Losing it would force him to have only the Taneytown Rd. Early on the morning of July 2 Meade was planning an attack with right to drive off any Conf troops located there. Lee removing them would have greatly eased Meade's mind and allowed him to reposition many of the units found there.
 

Pete Longstreet

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There seems to be several mistakes made by Lee during that campaign. He should have given precise orders, not discretionary orders, especially having two new corps commanders in Ewell and Hill. The calvary situation is obviously an issue, but Lee should have kept the pressure on after the success of day 1, and not let the federals regroup and fortify. The Federals had the advantage of interior lines and I'm sure Lee understood this. A more direct attack from the Confederate left, would have relieved some of the pressure on the Confederate right, which came so close on day 2. The Confederate attacks were disjointed and allowed the Union time to reinforce at those points. I think Lee was too conservative at Gettysburg. And thus seemed more cautious than he did at Chancellorsville or Second Manassas. It's said that Lee gave his corps commanders discretion during battle. But to rely on two new commanders to perform as he believed one should, especially at that critical moment, when the outcome of a battle could decide the fate of a nation... was a very serious mistake.
 

Wizard of Cozz

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So if Lee does something different what does Meade do differently in response? Lee ran his army poorly in the real event and Hill ran his corps poorly in the real event and I doubt that would have changed in any event. And in the real event Meade ran his army very well, I doubt that would've changed in any event.

This leads me to the conclusion that on the morning of the 2nd Lee's best move was to consider the campaign finished and vamoose.
The Confederstes were in a very good spot when Longstreet passed off the assault to Hill's 3rd Corps. Anderson's failed to get his last 2 brigades into the assault and the wounding of Dorsey Pender had major ramifications. It made Rodes hesitant to being his division into the attack as well. This means that 7 brigades on the west side of cemetery hill don't attack. An attack there coupled with the breakthrough that does happen would have completely unhinged the union position on top of that Meade had no more reinforcements to send as he had sent them all to stop Longstreet. And while hindsight says the day 3 assault would fail, I can't fault him entirely for making those decisions considering what he knew. I don't think he was a poor general at Gettysburg but he was fighting a Union army that fought well and his army was still very close to winning.
 

Irishtom29

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The Confederstes were in a very good spot when Longstreet passed off the assault to Hill's 3rd Corps. Anderson's failed to get his last 2 brigades into the assault and the wounding of Dorsey Pender had major ramifications. It made Rodes hesitant to being his division into the attack as well. This means that 7 brigades on the west side of cemetery hill don't attack. An attack there coupled with the breakthrough that does happen would have completely unhinged the union position on top of that Meade had no more reinforcements to send as he had sent them all to stop Longstreet.

Yeah, that's what happened, both Lee and Hill failed to command well.
 

Irishtom29

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You can't expect a army commander to be directing brigades into the fight. It's not there job. You also can't blame Lee for Pender getting injured.

I blame Lee for not supervising Hill and Hill for not supervising his corps. As for Pender, one expects leaders in battle to be wounded and killed. If an attack breaks down because a single man is wounded it betrays a flaw in higher command. I mean we're not talking Jimmy Stewart thwarting a Sioux attack in Winchester 73 by shooting Rock Hudson.

Anyway, I based my opinion on Lee's best move on what happened, not on what didn't. On choices made and what resulted. You know, it's not like Lee and Hill were faced with a choice of whether to command the attack on the 2nd well or command it poorly and said "Oh Hell, let's command it poorly".
 
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