Was Sickles justified in disobeying orders when he positioned his corps along Emmitsburg Road on the 2nd Day of Gettysburg?

29thWisCoG

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Was Sickles justified in disobeying orders when he moved down from Cemetery Ridge to position his corps along Emmitsburg Road on the second day?

What would have happened if he had remained on Cemetery Ridge as ordered, would there have been less casualties, would the line have held the Rebel attack?
 

rpkennedy

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Some thoughts after reading some of these discussions:

Terrain

While I would not characterize the terrain that Sickles was supposed to hold as a "hole" like he did, there are spots where it was noticably lower than the Emmitsburg Road ridge to his front. In addition, it was poorly suited for artillery as there were numerous woodlots that cut down sight lines but it was also quite rocky, hindering the guns' deployment. For modern reference, the Third Corps line extended from about the Father Corby monument to Munshower's Knoll. I get why Sickles didn't like his position but his problem was his inability to see the bigger picture and how he fit within the greater plan. As James Hessler puts it, Sickles was an emotional man who led with his gut but needed affirmation. As early as the morning of July 2, he was already looking to the front and developed tunnel vision regarding the two positions. He never went to LRT and never really scouted the Second Corps' position to see how he fit in with the rest of the army.

Communication

Something that also needs to be addressed is the relationship between Sickles and Meade. They did not get along at all and on several occasions that morning, they were essentially talking past one another. Meade only sent verbal orders to Sickles and Sickles repeatedly stated that he didn't understand exactly where he was supposed to be (he was supposed to place his left where Geary's Division had been camped the night before but he did not know where Geary had been and, to be fair, we still don't know definitively where Geary was). Sickles was afraid that he was going to become the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville and the ridge to his front caused him a lot of concern. When Meade finally dispatched Hunt with Sickles late in the morning, Sickles took him out to the ridge in addition to showing him the line on the ridge that he wanted to occupy. Hunt agreed with Sickles that the ridge was a better position but pointed out that if the Confederates held Seminary Ridge, it was going to be very difficult to hold (which prompted Sickles to dispatch the 3rd Maine and 1st United States Sharpshooters to Pitzer's Woods where they bump into Anderson's Division moving into position). This firefight fed into Sickles' fear about the Rebels trying to get around his flank and when Buford's Division was ordered out for refitting, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. With no one watching his flank, Sickles felt that he had to take the ridge but in doing so, put his men right into the frying pan and then botched the deployment, leaving his corps spread too thin and exposed.

Ryan
 

OpnCoronet

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Feb 23, 2010
In one respect, I find the thinking that led to the outflanking of the AoP at Chancellorsville very similar to Day 2 at Gettysburg.

Hooker placed XI Corps at the farthest end of his line safel, it was assumed, away from any serious fighting, because those at Hooker's Hdqtrs did not trust Howard or his men. Meade , seemed to assume from his disposition, that the main threat was to his Cemetery Hill/Cup's Hill positions. and put Sickles' and his men as far away from the expected danger area, because Meade did not trust Sickle's and his men.

Apparently, Sickle's learned from Chancellorsville and Meade apparently did not.
 

Carronade

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Lee's strategy was based on an erroneous idea of where the Union line was. Sickles moved his troops up to where the Confederates expected to find them.

Had Sickles followed orders, the initial Confederate advance would have been into the air, across his front, subject to flanking fire. No doubt the rebels would soon realize their mistake and redeploy to attack the actual Union position, but they would be doing this under observation and fire. As they turned, Hood's division would be in front/in the way of McLaws'. The end result would be a series of frontal assaults against troops dug in on a ridge.

Again, all this would be happening under observation from the Union lines, allowing the Yankees to reinforce or extend their position.
 

MichaelWinicki

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Lee's strategy was based on an erroneous idea of where the Union line was. Sickles moved his troops up to where the Confederates expected to find them.

Had Sickles followed orders, the initial Confederate advance would have been into the air, across his front, subject to flanking fire. No doubt the rebels would soon realize their mistake and redeploy to attack the actual Union position, but they would be doing this under observation and fire. As they turned, Hood's division would be in front/in the way of McLaws'. The end result would be a series of frontal assaults against troops dug in on a ridge.

Again, all this would be happening under observation from the Union lines, allowing the Yankees to reinforce or extend their position.

Agree on the thought that Lee's strategy was based on the incorrect assumption of where the Union left flank was.

A couple thoughts on the rest...

Doubtful the III Corps would have been dug in.

There was not much of a ridge south of the present Father Colby monument. And what ridge there was, was tree covered in front making it of questionable military value. And in front of this ridge were additional woodlots further reducing visibility for any defenders on the slightly higher ground.

And I would bet dollars to donuts that if Sickles had occupied the line envisioned by Meade that a strong skirmish line would have been put forth in the Peach Orchard and along the Emmitsburg Road, which would have alerted Longstreet's group that the Union presents in the area wasn't as it seemed from early in the morning on July 2nd.
 

Cavalier

First Sergeant
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Jul 20, 2019
I don't think it can be assumed that all would necessarily be well if Sickles didn't make his move. Due to the several reasons listed above the 3rd. Corps is for all intents and purposes destroyed, and he is in violation of his orders. The end result of his move is almost disastrous to the AOP. His butt has to be pulled from the fire of his own making by the troops of other Corps.


We have no way of knowing how things would have turned out had he obeyed his orders, but he didnt. In my opinion his move was not only incompetent and unjustified, but insubordinate. Judging him on his military competence alone and without regard to his love life or personal and political scandals, I believe he should have been court marshaled. If he didn't get Meade 's permission to make the move he desired then whatever occurred would have been on Meade.


Regardless of which opinion one may share on the Longstreet, Lee controversy, when Lee doesn't take Longstreet's advice to "disengage and move to the right" the results rest with the Army Commander.

John
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
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Feb 23, 2010
I understand your position fully. The problem is that the simple answer is that he wasn't justified. Hunt, Hancock, and Humphreys, just to name three, knew it at the time. Sickles didn't, because he was in over his head and apparently lacked a comprehension of basic military principles. The results proved it.
I would not count too much upon a majority opinion on any subject as being ipso facto correct.

Once, again, the results of his movement is not the question. But, in fact, the most important facts resulting from his movement was a repulse of Longstreet's attack. If one wishes to assume a different action would have yielded in a better result, then we have only past experience by which to judge their efficacy, in which case, the history of sitting around and waiting for Lee to act, is not a happy one ... for the AoP, and similarly the history of Confederate Flank Attacks on the AoP have been similarly unhappy

The facts are, Sickles had every right to be concerned about the defensibility of his assigned position. He voiced his concerns to his superior repeated ly by message and personally, and was either brushed off or ignored. He had every right to think his superior had no real knowledge of his position, or even, apparently where it was exactly. As evidence and reports of a confederate buildup on the high ground facing his force, probably extending well beyond the RT's. With no expectation that he was going to be reinforced, if Meade's attitude and actions was any indication

Sickles could be proactive, always a good rule when facing Lee, or he could sit on his hands and hope for the best, as Meade apparently wanted

I one wants to argue if the specific action was best or that there was a better one(other than simply watching and waiting) that might be an interesting, though ultimately, sterile discussion. But I do not think one can rationally argue that his movement was justified under the circumstances at that time.
 

Jimbo_Poke

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Jan 28, 2015
I would not count too much upon a majority opinion on any subject as being ipso facto correct.

Once, again, the results of his movement is not the question. But, in fact, the most important facts resulting from his movement was a repulse of Longstreet's attack. If one wishes to assume a different action would have yielded in a better result, then we have only past experience by which to judge their efficacy, in which case, the history of sitting around and waiting for Lee to act, is not a happy one ... for the AoP, and similarly the history of Confederate Flank Attacks on the AoP have been similarly unhappy

The facts are, Sickles had every right to be concerned about the defensibility of his assigned position. He voiced his concerns to his superior repeated ly by message and personally, and was either brushed off or ignored. He had every right to think his superior had no real knowledge of his position, or even, apparently where it was exactly. As evidence and reports of a confederate buildup on the high ground facing his force, probably extending well beyond the RT's. With no expectation that he was going to be reinforced, if Meade's attitude and actions was any indication

Sickles could be proactive, always a good rule when facing Lee, or he could sit on his hands and hope for the best, as Meade apparently wanted

I one wants to argue if the specific action was best or that there was a better one(other than simply watching and waiting) that might be an interesting, though ultimately, sterile discussion. But I do not think one can rationally argue that his movement was justified under the circumstances at that time.
Agreed with the bold, but I don't think this is what you meant to write. Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but then choosing a course of action that exacerbates those concerns is not justifiable. Sickles concerned about his flank, ok, but his decision creates an additional two open flanks (his right and now the 2nd Corps left). He is concerned about support, but then moves his line closer to the rebs and about twice the distance from his support. Sickles is concerned about having enough men to defend his line, but then he creates a front that is even longer. Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but when the decision you make worsens those concerns, those legitimate concerns don't justify but rather further condemn the move.
 

OpnCoronet

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Joined
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Agreed with the bold, but I don't think this is what you meant to write. Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but then choosing a course of action that exacerbates those concerns is not justifiable. Sickles concerned about his flank, ok, but his decision creates an additional two open flanks (his right and now the 2nd Corps left). He is concerned about support, but then moves his line closer to the rebs and about twice the distance from his support. Sickles is concerned about having enough men to defend his line, but then he creates a front that is even longer. Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but when the decision you make worsens those concerns, those legitimate concerns don't justify but rather further condemn the move.

Agreed with the bold, but I don't think this is what you meant to write. Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but then choosing a course of action that exacerbates those concerns is not justifiable. Sickles concerned about his flank, ok, but his decision creates an additional two open flanks (his right and now the 2nd Corps left). He is concerned about support, but then moves his line closer to the rebs and about twice the distance from his support. Sickles is concerned about having enough men to defend his line, but then he creates a front that is even longer. Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but when the decision you make worsens those concerns, those legitimate concerns don't justify but rather further condemn the move.
Except, Sickles was not worried about his flank per se but the defensibility of his position in general.

The position, unlike Union positions further North, which had the advantage of the high ground of Cemetery Ridge, was dominated by a high plateau on which the Peach Orchard was located.. With growing evidence that it was or soon would be occupied by the confederates.

As I have noted before, the movement can only be assumed to have been an error, in the absence of any evidence that there would have been a better, resulting in a better result than what actually happened. As I have also noted, the history of the War up to that time would indicate a coordinated confederate assault on the Union Flank, which was exactly what Lee planned, had a much better chance of success than not.

In point of fact, I do not think III Corps or its reinforcements were ever outflanked. Longstreet's attack was stymied even as it began and what had been planned as a coordinated assault on the undefended Union flank, a staple of many ANV victories, and became a head on infantry battle,, a style much better suited to that of the AoP.

Instead of moving to the North as had been intended by Lee, Hood's Corps was forced to move sideways to the East looking for the Union flank, negating almost all forward movement.

The end result in the end, was that on Day 3, Lee had only a fresh Division, while Meade had a fresh(or at least more fresh than his others) Corps.(that Meade did not take advantage of that fact, was not Sickles fault.

My point is that a planned and coordinated Confederate attack on the Flank of the AoP, was turned into a stubborn infantry battle, that yielded a better result, than could have been expected from receiving the assault as planned by Lee. It is sheer speculation to assume another action of Sickles(or Meade) would have yielded better results, in the light of the history of the War and experience of the AoP, up to that time.
 

Cavalier

First Sergeant
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@OpnCoronet So, if I understand, it is your opinion that the AoP defeated the Army of Northern Virginia, at least on day 2, because Sickles advanced his Corps as he did.

It is my opinion that the AoP prevailed on July 2nd. in spite of Sickles move, not because of it, and that only quick action and intense scrambling on the part of others saved the day.

The above being the case I would just have to agree to disagree.

John
 

MichaelWinicki

Private
Joined
Jul 23, 2020
"it did put his force in a better position to defend itself, than in its original ill considered position."

No it didn't. Again, look at the map of his new position.

The very-rough map of the so-called better position keeps being referenced... However that map neglects the various foliage that either blocked the western face of that ridge or does not show the foliage and woodlots that were directly in front of that ridge which made line-of-sight haphazard at best.

What we know of Geary's position late on July 1st, early on July 2nd is that he never occupied that ridge either– His two brigades were in front of that ridge because they saw what accurate maps show and that is the ridge in question was highly questionable as a defensive anchor from the George Weikert house to Little Round Top– All due to the presence of foliage and woodlots facing or in front that ridge.

I fully agree that Sickles forward line was too long to defend with his corps but to imply that the 6/10 of a mile line from the George Weikert house to LRT could have been a strong military position is simply not correct it was meh for infantry and downright artillery unfriendly.
 

JeffFromSyracuse

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Was Sickles justified in moving the III Corps? Having stood at both Hazel Grove and the Peach Orchard, no. Changes in artillery control and potential gun positions at Gettysburg made a repeat of Chancellorsville unlikely.

What would have happened if he hadn't moved? Lee's en echelon attack would have had to go further and made contact on less-favorable ground.
 

James N.

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Was Sickles justified in disobeying orders when he moved down from Cemetery Ridge to position his corps along Emmitsburg Road on the second day?

What would have happened if he had remained on Cemetery Ridge as ordered, would there have been less casualties, would the line have held the Rebel attack?
I'm sure he thought so, based in at least part on the appearance of the ground there:

https://civilwartalk.com/threads/a-closer-look-at-the-peach-orchard.104648/
 

jackt62

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When Sickles moved his corps forward from his assigned position along Cemetery Ridge, he did so remembering his withdrawal from the high ground at Hazel Grove during the battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker ordered that pull back in order to constrict his lines, but in doing so allowed the Confederates to obtain a desirable artillery platform. Thus, Sickles was prompted to occupy the slightly elevated area around the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. But this created a dangerous salient whose longer length had to be occupied by insufficient III Corps troops. Was this a logical move? At the end of the day's fighting, after touch and go struggle, the salient was penetrated and the III Corps line was essentially pushed back to where it would have originally been located. This is what Sickles forever afterwards claimed as proving that he made the correct decision. But Meade and others have long argued that the failure to hold the Cemetery Ridge line resulted in higher casualties and with no apparent benefit to the Union defense.
 

Belfoured

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When Sickles moved his corps forward from his assigned position along Cemetery Ridge, he did so remembering his withdrawal from the high ground at Hazel Grove during the battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker ordered that pull back in order to constrict his lines, but in doing so allowed the Confederates to obtain a desirable artillery platform. Thus, Sickles was prompted to occupy the slightly elevated area around the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. But this created a dangerous salient whose longer length had to be occupied by insufficient III Corps troops. Was this a logical move? At the end of the day's fighting, after touch and go struggle, the salient was penetrated and the III Corps line was essentially pushed back to where it would have originally been located. This is what Sickles forever afterwards claimed as proving that he made the correct decision. But Meade and others have long argued that the failure to hold the Cemetery Ridge line resulted in higher casualties and with no apparent benefit to the Union defense.
All anyone has to do is look at the line he held after the move, noting the ridiculous bend and salient; where his supports were before and after the move; and how many men he had per yard defending his new line compared with how many he had in the old line. His corps was sufficiently shattered that it became a shell of itself and disappeared in the 1864 reorganization. (I'll even leave aside for the moment the notion that the commander of one unit can and should decide unilaterally to abandon his alignment with other units as directed by his CO). Sickles was operating on an amateur's simplistic assumption that somewhat "higher" ground was always better and that no other factors specific to the terrain and the location of supports might be relevant. Being basically a dishonest narcissist, he spent his remaining years concocting the spin that he "saved" the Army of the Potomac.
 
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