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?
 
Solution
22 pages and counting!

Some great points have been brought up in this thread, which is obviously a perrenial and polarized topic, and has been since it happened. My experience with these threads is that nobody changes their mind, either. Lol

One account that isn't mentioned much in these threads is that of Henry Tremain. At one point in his narrative (after Hunt's inspection of the proposed 'new' line), he describes being out with Graham at the Peach Orchard and observing a Confederate column crossing the Emmitsburg Road to the south (Hood's division moving into position). When reporting this information to hq, "General Meade expressed a wish to see General Sickles." Tremain went on to say "I did not understand it to be an...

Saphroneth

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Given what General Hunt wrote, he was already biased toward defending at Gettysburg so it makes sense that he would agree with Sickles. But he wasn't Meade, and Meade wanted defended what he viewed as the overall best defense. It wasn't up to Hunt or Sickles to second guess and countermand Meade's orders. When you're given an order your only response is, "yes sir, yes sir, three bags full", and carry out your orders.
Of course! But from Sickles' point of view, he's concerned about his position, Hunt has concurred, and Sickles has sent someone (Hunt) to ask Meade about it, and no response has come back. So it seems like his concerns have been ignored.

If Meade hasn't actually inspected that part of the line (which is my understanding) then as far as Sickles knows the position has been picked by Meade off the map without actually confirming that the ground is good. This is almost exactly the situation Sickles was in at Chancellorsville, and at Chancellorsville he got the **** pounded out of his force (and this was a key part of the Federal defeat).


What I'm trying to do is to explain what was going on in Sickles' head. This is one part of exploring his decision; looking at what Sickles thinks would happen if he did not advance, and whether Meade is aware of the danger.
Sickles has reason to think there is danger, and he has reason to think Meade is unaware of it. Under these circumstances, Sickles could reason that moving out to the advanced line would prevent a defeat.


The second part of the question - the legality of what Sickles did - is pretty clear. Sickles was ordered to take up a position, and the extent to which he should not have advanced is exactly related to the extent to which you feel a commander has latitude to act beyond their orders (which is known as discretion). If you feel a commander has no discretion, then obviously he was completely unjustified, but the Civil War is replete with commanders acting outside their orders (including actively disobeying them, something Jackson did on more than one occasion) and garnering success.
It is generally the case historically (Napoleonic Wars) that corps commanders are expected to exercise at least some discretion, but the Napoleonic corps is not the same as the ACW corps.



The third part of the question is whether what Sickles did actually did improve things for the Union, and that is much harder to tell because you can't really rerun the battle over. It looks however like if Longstreet's attack had gone home on Sickles' original position he would have been in trouble anyway, and there is the possibility of the loss of the road.


This means that my view is that Sickles was:
- Justified according to the information he had and the view he had - probably. He had good reason at least to believe that he was doing something that would avert defeat and that doing so without orders was a reasonable course of action, even if not legal.
- Justified according to the law - this depends directly on the limits of corps commander discretion. Sometimes they're expected to have a lot more than they are other times - the classic case of the commander who hears the sound of guns and rides to them is applauded, but in that situation a commander who sat in place would be the one obeying orders. McDowell during the Northern Virginia Campaign exercised his discretion to block Thoroughfare Gap, without orders, and nearly saved the whole Union operational position.
- Militarily justified according to whether his actions materially improved the Union chances of success - this is a tricky one. I think you can argue that Longstreet hitting 3rd Corps in their original position and without reinforcements en route would have done more damage to the Union position, but it is difficult to disambiguate this from the chance hit that brought Hood down in our timeline and misaligned his whole division.



However, Hunt went on the explain the problems associated with this “new line”, and reported back to Meade. I guess it depends on what you mean by Sickles’s advance, but Graham moved out to the PO in response to the Pitzers recon.
I mean the general advance by Sickles' whole force. Unless the timeline is a lot more compressed than is my understanding there was ample time for Hunt to have reported and for Meade to have come and checked the situation out himself - I've seen mention that Meade didn't want to move any of his corps until 6th Corps arrived, but unless he was actively doing something else important Meade could presumably have come and checked in on Sickles.
 

Scott Brown

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Of course! But from Sickles' point of view, he's concerned about his position, Hunt has concurred, and Sickles has sent someone (Hunt) to ask Meade about it, and no response has come back. So it seems like his concerns have been ignored.

If Meade hasn't actually inspected that part of the line (which is my understanding) then as far as Sickles knows the position has been picked by Meade off the map without actually confirming that the ground is good. This is almost exactly the situation Sickles was in at Chancellorsville, and at Chancellorsville he got the **** pounded out of his force (and this was a key part of the Federal defeat).


What I'm trying to do is to explain what was going on in Sickles' head. This is one part of exploring his decision; looking at what Sickles thinks would happen if he did not advance, and whether Meade is aware of the danger.
Sickles has reason to think there is danger, and he has reason to think Meade is unaware of it. Under these circumstances, Sickles could reason that moving out to the advanced line would prevent a defeat.


The second part of the question - the legality of what Sickles did - is pretty clear. Sickles was ordered to take up a position, and the extent to which he should not have advanced is exactly related to the extent to which you feel a commander has latitude to act beyond their orders (which is known as discretion). If you feel a commander has no discretion, then obviously he was completely unjustified, but the Civil War is replete with commanders acting outside their orders (including actively disobeying them, something Jackson did on more than one occasion) and garnering success.
It is generally the case historically (Napoleonic Wars) that corps commanders are expected to exercise at least some discretion, but the Napoleonic corps is not the same as the ACW corps.



The third part of the question is whether what Sickles did actually did improve things for the Union, and that is much harder to tell because you can't really rerun the battle over. It looks however like if Longstreet's attack had gone home on Sickles' original position he would have been in trouble anyway, and there is the possibility of the loss of the road.


This means that my view is that Sickles was:
- Justified according to the information he had and the view he had - probably. He had good reason at least to believe that he was doing something that would avert defeat and that doing so without orders was a reasonable course of action, even if not legal.
- Justified according to the law - this depends directly on the limits of corps commander discretion. Sometimes they're expected to have a lot more than they are other times - the classic case of the commander who hears the sound of guns and rides to them is applauded, but in that situation a commander who sat in place would be the one obeying orders. McDowell during the Northern Virginia Campaign exercised his discretion to block Thoroughfare Gap, without orders, and nearly saved the whole Union operational position.
- Militarily justified according to whether his actions materially improved the Union chances of success - this is a tricky one. I think you can argue that Longstreet hitting 3rd Corps in their original position and without reinforcements en route would have done more damage to the Union position, but it is difficult to disambiguate this from the chance hit that brought Hood down in our timeline and misaligned his whole division.




I mean the general advance by Sickles' whole force. Unless the timeline is a lot more compressed than is my understanding there was ample time for Hunt to have reported and for Meade to have come and checked the situation out himself - I've seen mention that Meade didn't want to move any of his corps until 6th Corps arrived, but unless he was actively doing something else important Meade could presumably have come and checked in on Sickles.
Even Tremain admitted in Two Days that Meade expressed a wish to see Sickles….which I figure happened around 2pm……but Tremain decided it wasn’t an ‘imperative’ order. Who was ignoring who here?
 

rpkennedy

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But Hunt was sent by Meade to check if Sickles was correct, and Hunt agreed with Sickles.


The question that needs to be asked here is this - in what way can Sickles get the information to Meade that there is a problem, and how should Meade have then reacted?

What Sickles did historically was to repeatedly inform Meade that there was a problem in his opinion. He said the position was weak, and he said that the enemy was planning to attack in his sector (the second point is true).

Meade's response to this could have been:
1) Take Sickles' comments seriously and view them as correct, and reposition Sickles in a better position.
2) Take Sickles' comments seriously and go over to check the ground, to affirm that Sickles' current position is the correct one.
3) Send a staff officer (like, say, Hunt) over to check if Sickles is correct, and if he is then take Sickles' comments seriously (as above).

Instead, what Meade did was to dismiss Sickles' concerns. He responded to Sickles saying the enemy was going to attack in his sector by saying that all commanders think the attack is going to come in their sector (which led to him ignoring a true warning of the attack position) and he did not go over to check the ground - something he could have done at any time and which would have consumed some time, certainly. Instead, he sent over Hunt but then didn't listen when Hunt concurred with Sickles, which means he didn't send over Hunt to actually find out if Sickles was right - he sent Hunt over to shut Sickles up.
Saying that Hunt agreed with Sickles is a bit of an exaggeration. Hunt agreed that the forward position that Sickles wanted to occupy was better suited for artillery (better fields of fire, less rocky and marshy terrain, better elevation, etc.) but he also pointed out that if the Confederates occupied Seminary Ridge further south than Pitzer's Woods, the new line would be untenable. This prompted Sickles to send the 3rd Maine and 1st United States Sharpshooters into Pitzer's Woods and the fight against Wilcox's Brigade late that morning.

Ryan
 

Saphroneth

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Even Tremain admitted in Two Days that Meade expressed a wish to see Sickles….which I figure happened around 2pm……but Tremain decided it wasn’t an ‘imperative’ order. Who was ignoring who here?
Honestly, unless Meade was busy with something urgent at his HQ then going over to Sickles is the obvious choice of action. The issue is the ground, and having it in front of them would help.

Do we know if Meade had inspected that part of the field during daylight? I know he arrived at night, and he spent most of the morning on his right, but if he'd toured the line that would be a significant help (to the estimation of whether he acted appropriately).

Saying that Hunt agreed with Sickles is a bit of an exaggeration.
That's a fair point, though it doesn't exactly allay Sickles' concerns either; one has to ask at what point Meade thinks it's worth investigating.
If Sickles got the impression that Hunt was going over to let Meade know Sickles' concerns and Meade got the impression that Sickles wasn't actually overly concerned, then one could argue that Hunt erred here.



The comparable situation to this that I'm thinking of is Franklin during Glendale. That's a case where McClellan actually had toured the lines that day, and what Franklin did was that he became afraid that a night attack would take place and envelop his position; he seems to have taken care not ot let anyone know what he was doing or his concerns, and just quit the field outright.
In this case we know that it unzipped the whole Union flank at Glendale and forced a general overnight retreat to Malvern Hill.

This is one that I consider to be dubiously justified at best with the information Franklin had. It's less justifiable than Sickles, basically, because the military "case" for doing it is much weaker both with the information Franklin had available and with hindsight.
 

CavRTO

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Honestly, unless Meade was busy with something urgent at his HQ then going over to Sickles is the obvious choice of action. The issue is the ground, and having it in front of them would help.

Do we know if Meade had inspected that part of the field during daylight? I know he arrived at night, and he spent most of the morning on his right, but if he'd toured the line that would be a significant help (to the estimation of whether he acted appropriately).


That's a fair point, though it doesn't exactly allay Sickles' concerns either; one has to ask at what point Meade thinks it's worth investigating.
If Sickles got the impression that Hunt was going over to let Meade know Sickles' concerns and Meade got the impression that Sickles wasn't actually overly concerned, then one could argue that Hunt erred here.



The comparable situation to this that I'm thinking of is Franklin during Glendale. That's a case where McClellan actually had toured the lines that day, and what Franklin did was that he became afraid that a night attack would take place and envelop his position; he seems to have taken care not ot let anyone know what he was doing or his concerns, and just quit the field outright.
In this case we know that it unzipped the whole Union flank at Glendale and forced a general overnight retreat to Malvern Hill.

This is one that I consider to be dubiously justified at best with the information Franklin had. It's less justifiable than Sickles, basically, because the military "case" for doing it is much weaker both with the information Franklin had available and with hindsight.
Really enjoying kicking this issue around. We could go on and on without agreeing on Sickle's and Meade's thoughts, intentions, and who actually said what to whom. There's enough evidence to support and not support alleged statements. Good arguments can be made for both sides and I'm ready to agree to disagree.
 

rpkennedy

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Honestly, unless Meade was busy with something urgent at his HQ then going over to Sickles is the obvious choice of action. The issue is the ground, and having it in front of them would help.

Do we know if Meade had inspected that part of the field during daylight? I know he arrived at night, and he spent most of the morning on his right, but if he'd toured the line that would be a significant help (to the estimation of whether he acted appropriately).


That's a fair point, though it doesn't exactly allay Sickles' concerns either; one has to ask at what point Meade thinks it's worth investigating.
If Sickles got the impression that Hunt was going over to let Meade know Sickles' concerns and Meade got the impression that Sickles wasn't actually overly concerned, then one could argue that Hunt erred here.



The comparable situation to this that I'm thinking of is Franklin during Glendale. That's a case where McClellan actually had toured the lines that day, and what Franklin did was that he became afraid that a night attack would take place and envelop his position; he seems to have taken care not ot let anyone know what he was doing or his concerns, and just quit the field outright.
In this case we know that it unzipped the whole Union flank at Glendale and forced a general overnight retreat to Malvern Hill.

This is one that I consider to be dubiously justified at best with the information Franklin had. It's less justifiable than Sickles, basically, because the military "case" for doing it is much weaker both with the information Franklin had available and with hindsight.

I agree that his ride with Hunt did not allay his fears. By that morning, Sickles had become fixated on the Emmitsburg Road ridge position and was looking for others to support and confirm his ideas. IMO, and his post-battle writings indicate this, he wasn't thinking about Hazel Grove but was thinking about Chancellorsville. He felt that he was put into the position of the Eleventh Corps, an understrength corps put at the end of the line with no expectation of seeing a major assault but with no clear line of sight to see the Confederates that he believed were going to move to assault his flank. Because of this, he looked at the ridgeline to his front as a stronger position to both defend and observe his front.

After several messages back and forth from Third Corps HQ to Army HQ, Meade relented and sent Hunt to speak with Sickles and consult him in order to effectively place his artillery along his designated line. When he arrived, Sickles rode out with Hunt to show him the Emmitsburg Road ridge and asked his opinion about the position. Hunt gave his honest opinion but pointed out the problems and made sure that Sickles knew that Hunt had no authority to order such a movement. Taking Hunt's advice about finding out where on Seminary Ridge the Confederates were, Sickles ordered 2 regiments into Pitzer's Woods who ran into Wilcox's Alabama Brigade as it moved into position. During the fairly long skirmish in the woods, Buford's Division (who had been picketing from the Peach Orchard out towards Fairfield and, more importantly to Sickles, watching over the army's left flank) was ordered to the rear for refitting and no cavalry replaced them. As the fight in Pitzer's Woods petered out and Sickles received the information that the Confederates were on Seminary Ridge in force and were pushing south and that his left flank was now uncovered, Sickles' worst fears were realized. At that point, he felt he had no option but to move to the Emmitsburg Road ridge and began pushing clouds of skirmishers forward to screen his advance.

IMO, the real failure between Meade and Sickles was a personal one. Both hated the other and went out of their way to avoid speaking, sending aides back and forth rather than personally consulting with one another. Theirs was a serious failure to communicate their desires and concerns about the deployment of the Third Corps until it was far too late.

Ryan
 
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WJC

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Years later, Longstreet affirmed that Sickles' movement surprised him and 'unbalanced' his attack. But Pete and Dan were 'good buddies' by then.
View attachment 419140
[Pittsburgh Dispatch, March 19, 1892]​
Would love to have been there.
Much as I respect and admire Longstreet, I believe his friendship and defense of Sickles needs to be assessed with 'a grain of salt'. Both were severely criticized for their actions in the Battle, and they became for each other useful allies against that criticism.
 

mkyzzzrdet

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I respectfully disagree with you. Sickles received his first orders from Meade thru General Slocum who went so far as to show Sickles on Captain Paine's map the placement of the Third Corps. Initially Meade had to search for Sickles and found him and his corps in encampment behind the lines Meade was rushing to establish. I can understand Sickles confusion during their first encounter, but by the second order from Meade he was getting established where Meade ordered him via General Slocum. He didn't like the position so he took it upon himself to move his corps forward without informing Meade. When Meade inspected the lines he found that Sickles wasn't where he was supposed to be and rode off to find him and get him to move back. By the time Meade finally located him all hell broke lose on Sickles corps and it was too late to fall back.
In summary, Sickles had initially occupied his assigned defense position, didn't like it and then he took it upon himself to move forward creating a salient which was indefensible. Sickles was guilty of disobeying an order and dereliction of duty by placing his troops in an indefensible position thereby causing catastrophic casualties on his and supporting corps sent to reinforce his failure. In addition it threatened the integrity of the rest of the Union line. Also, his location precluded his corps trains and artillery from supporting him. Nothing short of a court martial should've been his reward, not the Congressional Medal of Honor. His defense of confusion about Meade's order doesn't hold water.
Sickles may have made an error in judgement (and that is widely debated) but that in itself does not constitute "dereliction of duty".
If he had been passed out drunk and nowhere near his troops, maybe. I retired as an officer from USAF and if making a judgement error constitutes "dereliction of duty", I should have been court-martialed on many occasions.
 

rpkennedy

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Sickles may have made an error in judgement (and that is widely debated) but that in itself does not constitute "dereliction of duty".
If he had been passed out drunk and nowhere near his troops, maybe. I retired as an officer from USAF and if making a judgement error constitutes "dereliction of duty", I should have been court-martialed on many occasions.

The way I explain it is that Sickles made the wrong decision for the right reasons. Based on what he thought was true, he made a reasonable decision.

Ryan
 

CavRTO

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Sickles may have made an error in judgement (and that is widely debated) but that in itself does not constitute "dereliction of duty".
If he had been passed out drunk and nowhere near his troops, maybe. I retired as an officer from USAF and if making a judgement error constitutes "dereliction of duty", I should have been court-martialed on many occasions.
Military definition of Dereliction of Duty:

Dereliction of Duty (Military Law) Law and Legal Definition

definitions.uslegal.com/d/dereliction-of-duty-military-law/

definitions.uslegal.com/d/dereliction-of-duty-military-law/

Sickles is guilty as charged.
 

mkyzzzrdet

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Military definition of Dereliction of Duty:

Dereliction of Duty (Military Law) Law and Legal Definition

View attachment 419283
definitions.uslegal.com/d/dereliction-of-duty-military-law/

Sickles is guilty as charged.
Nope - I agree with rpkennedy above. Sickles did what he thought was the right decision. That is NOT dereliction of duty even if he screwed up. Was Lee guilty of dereliction of duty when he ordered Pickett's charge? Was Grant guilty of it when he approved the Cold Harbor attack?
 

CavRTO

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Nope - I agree with rpkennedy above. Sickles did what he thought was the right decision. That is NOT dereliction of duty even if he screwed up. Was Lee guilty of dereliction of duty when he ordered Pickett's charge? Was Grant guilty of it when he approved the Cold Harbor attack?
You're comparing apples to oranges. Willfully disobeying an order falls under the definition of dereliction of duty. This in turn led to the needless slaughter of his own corps and reinforcing elements.
 

Lubliner

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You're comparing apples to oranges. Willfully disobeying an order falls under the definition of dereliction of duty. This in turn led to the needless slaughter of his own corps and reinforcing elements.
Willful disobedience I don't agree with. I believe due to his own perception of the threat Sickles was compelled to move. To be guilty of willful disobedience means he would have no trepidation for his actions, and a 'devil may care' attitude, IMO.
Lubliner.
 

rpkennedy

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You're comparing apples to oranges. Willfully disobeying an order falls under the definition of dereliction of duty. This in turn led to the needless slaughter of his own corps and reinforcing elements.
It could be argued that his movement was within the letter of Meade's order but violated the spirit of it. Sickles extended his corps far beyond its defensive capability but felt it was necessary to do so, based on his perception of the situation. Saying that he willfully violated Meade's orders is stretching it a bit, IMO.

Ryan
 

mkyzzzrdet

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It could be argued that his movement was within the letter of Meade's order but violated the spirit of it. Sickles extended his corps far beyond its defensive capability but felt it was necessary to do so, based on his perception of the situation. Saying that he willfully violated Meade's orders is stretching it a bit, IMO.

Ryan
Agree, and saying it was "dereliction of duty" is stretching it a lot, IMO.
 

CavRTO

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It could be argued that his movement was within the letter of Meade's order but violated the spirit of it. Sickles extended his corps far beyond its defensive capability but felt it was necessary to do so, based on his perception of the situation. Saying that he willfully violated Meade's orders is stretching it a bit, IMO.
Willful disobedience I don't agree with. I believe due to his own perception of the threat Sickles was compelled to move. To be guilty of willful disobedience means he would have no trepidation for his actions, and a 'devil may care' attitude, IMO.
Lubliner.

Hmmmmmmm? If disobeying an order 3 times isn't willful disobedience, I don't know what is.
In addition you're argument is for a possible excuse. Halleck was right in his criticism of Sickles excuses. But he got it wrong by not court martialing him. He knew Sickles political connections would probably make him a political target.
 

Belfoured

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It could be argued that his movement was within the letter of Meade's order but violated the spirit of it. Sickles extended his corps far beyond its defensive capability but felt it was necessary to do so, based on his perception of the situation. Saying that he willfully violated Meade's orders is stretching it a bit, IMO.

Ryan
I agree and any of my prior posts are not really based on "willful disobedience" - as opposed to what IMHO was the inept decision to move unilaterally without working that out with Meade - and regardless of whether his perception of the ground was accurate (and Hunt reconsidered even what he had said as he rode back to Meade). The unilateral move eliminated his mutually supporting connection with the left flank of the II Corps by a significant distance, doubled the length of his already thinly-held line, created a vulnerable salient, etc. While there is valid debate about whether the move fortuitously disrupted Longstreet's attack/to what effect, I have never seen anyone argue that Sickles' intent was to destroy his corps - which is pretty much what happened.
 

rpkennedy

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It was a new line. Everybody on the field knew it. And Sickles freely admitted post-war that he took that new line up on his own authority.
Agreed but it still generally conformed to the letter if not the spirit of Meade's order. Sickles was to tie in his right with Hancock (there was a gap that was being somewhat covered by a few units of the Second Corps and a thin line of skirmishers) with his left where Geary's men had camped the night before (probably the northern slope of Little Round Top which Sickles' left covered). A case could be made for Sickles not willfully disobeying a superior's order but he was clearly knowing and exceeding Meade's express wishes.

Ryan
 
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