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

29thWisCoG

Private
Joined
Apr 12, 2021
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?
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Longstreet had his chance if he hadn't diddled the morning away grousing over Lee's decision to fight now, could have struck Sickles pretty hard while he was still out there on his own.
I strongly recommend Corey Pfarr's excellent 2019 book Longstreet at Gettysburg. He effectively demolishes much of the long-accepted spin about Longstreet's actions at Gettysburg (including this one) that started with the propaganda campaign organized by Jubal Early and some others - conveniently after Lee's death.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I tend to think that it would be unrealistic to expect Sickles to not honestly believe his corps - and, consequently, the Union army - to be in danger given the events that took place leading up to his decision.

He was correct that a major attack was coming in his sector.
When he asked Meade for clarification, Meade fobbed him off with Hunt - and then when Hunt concurred with Sickles, Meade did not go over and look himself.
Sickles had also faced a situation just recently in which his corps was bombarded from dominating terrain.

What we do not know however is whether Sickles' corps was actually in danger of being defeated if it had retained the position it had been assigned. I think, though, that if 3rd Corps had been able to defend itself (if attacked in that position) then we would probably expect the reinforcements to have been able to defend themselves against Longstreet (in that position) without much trouble with no greater strength needed than that of the original 3rd Corps. Instead the attack caused massive havoc even with an entire Confederate division veering off to attack the Round Tops.
This means I think there is a reasonable expectation that Sickles would not have been able to resist the attack that was actually coming, in the position he was supposed to be in. That doesn't mean it's impossible, it means we can't say he was almost certain to hold (say).

Now, given the above, the appropriate thing for Sickles to do - given what he knew and could believe - would be to strongly argue that his corps should take up an advanced line. What is at question is whether it would then be justified for him to take an action (i.e. taking an advanced line) when it is evident that the army commander is ignoring him.
Colouring this decision is that Meade is extremely new to the job, of course.

I think Sickles' movement is probably justifiable in the situation, if only in the Prussian spirit of "after the battle is over, my lord may have my head, but in the meantime allow me to exercise it in his service".
 

ivanj05

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 8, 2015
I tend to think that it would be unrealistic to expect Sickles to not honestly believe his corps - and, consequently, the Union army - to be in danger given the events that took place leading up to his decision.

He was correct that a major attack was coming in his sector.
When he asked Meade for clarification, Meade fobbed him off with Hunt - and then when Hunt concurred with Sickles, Meade did not go over and look himself.
Sickles had also faced a situation just recently in which his corps was bombarded from dominating terrain.

What we do not know however is whether Sickles' corps was actually in danger of being defeated if it had retained the position it had been assigned. I think, though, that if 3rd Corps had been able to defend itself (if attacked in that position) then we would probably expect the reinforcements to have been able to defend themselves against Longstreet (in that position) without much trouble with no greater strength needed than that of the original 3rd Corps. Instead the attack caused massive havoc even with an entire Confederate division veering off to attack the Round Tops.
This means I think there is a reasonable expectation that Sickles would not have been able to resist the attack that was actually coming, in the position he was supposed to be in. That doesn't mean it's impossible, it means we can't say he was almost certain to hold (say).

Now, given the above, the appropriate thing for Sickles to do - given what he knew and could believe - would be to strongly argue that his corps should take up an advanced line. What is at question is whether it would then be justified for him to take an action (i.e. taking an advanced line) when it is evident that the army commander is ignoring him.
Colouring this decision is that Meade is extremely new to the job, of course.

I think Sickles' movement is probably justifiable in the situation, if only in the Prussian spirit of "after the battle is over, my lord may have my head, but in the meantime allow me to exercise it in his service".

The primary issue with your thesis is that due to Sickles unauthorized movement, none of the units that reinforced him were able to do so in the position that Meade ordered the Third Corps to be in. The other problem with your thesis is that Sickles movement forced the units that reinforced him to do so piecemeal, rather than in a cohesive whole, as they would have been able to do had the Third Corps actually been on Cemetery Ridge.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The primary issue with your thesis is that due to Sickles unauthorized movement, none of the units that reinforced him were able to do so in the position that Meade ordered the Third Corps to be in.
Why's that? Couldn't they have formed a fallback position that 3rd Corps could retire through?

Something which is worth contemplating is that in Sickles' original position his force had only a very small distance it could fall back before it was on top of the road - which is bad as the protection of the road is the point...

(This is worth considering - unless 3rd Corps holds pretty much in place against Longstreet's attack then any reinforcement will be arriving after they've lost the road.)



The other thing to ask is whether this was the justification that Meade provided, because to my understanding it was not - he dismissed Sickles' concerns.
 
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Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
The primary issue with your thesis is that due to Sickles unauthorized movement, none of the units that reinforced him were able to do so in the position that Meade ordered the Third Corps to be in. The other problem with your thesis is that Sickles movement forced the units that reinforced him to do so piecemeal, rather than in a cohesive whole, as they would have been able to do had the Third Corps actually been on Cemetery Ridge.
That's correct. In addition, Sickles complained that his original line was too thinly held by his 10,000-man corps. So he went and doubled its length, adding a salient to the mix. He detached his left from its LRT anchor and - as you note - exacerbated the distance between himself and his Fifth Corps support. Dave Powell knows his stuff. Anything to the contrary is a "for entertainment purposes only" debating game.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
To my mind it can sort of be disambiguated into these questions:

1)
Did Sickles honestly think that making the movement would alleviate a danger to his corps, and to the army?
For this one I think the answer is yes.

2)
Did Meade reasonably act to assuage Sickles' concerns about the vulnerable terrain?
For this one I think the answer is no. Meade did send over Hunt, but manifestly as an attempt to make Sickles be quiet rather than anything else because Hunt agreed with Sickles rather than Meade.

3)
If a corps commander honestly believes that their action will be beneficial to the army, is that something they can exercise their initiative to do even if it is not within the orders they have been given?
This is a philosophy of command question.

4)
Was Sickles' judgement correct?
If it was not, then on the matter of the terrain at least he was not alone in his misjudgement (since Hunt concurred with him).
Other than that, it is a little harder to tell; we can't rerun the battle, but we'd need to disambiguate the things Sickles could reasonably know about and the things he could not.
For example it happens that the angle of Longstreet's attack would have functionally acted as an echelon attack that would have been worse for Sickles than a frontal attack, but this is not something Sickles could reasonably have known. Similarly if Hood doesn't go down and his division remains on track then things are worse; this has no direct causal relationship with Sickles' movement of course.

If the attack Sickles was actually envisaging happens with his corps in the original position, and 5th Corps is still committed to support him, he is probably going to be able to hold (which would mean his judgement was flawed on the matter).
 

29thWisCoG

Private
Joined
Apr 12, 2021
Would like to see a topo map that shows the original line Meade assigned to Sickles in relation to the Peach orchard, the map should show woods as well. Did Sickles misunderstand where his line was supposed to be, and that prompted him to move to an advanced position?
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Would like to see a topo map that shows the original line Meade assigned to Sickles in relation to the Peach orchard, the map should show woods as well. Did Sickles misunderstand where his line was supposed to be, and that prompted him to move to an advanced position?
My understanding is that Sickles did not misunderstand where his line was supposed to be. He felt his position was vulnerable to bombardment from the Peach Orchard ridge, which was slightly higher.
 

29thWisCoG

Private
Joined
Apr 12, 2021
"Generals Joseph Carr, Sickles, and Charles Graham in 1886, near the Trostle Barn where Sickles was wounded at Gettysburg." I like this picture, seems like a tough dude... apparently his leg was preserved in DC and every time he would come to Washington he would pay a visit to his leg!
sickles.jpg
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
To my mind it can sort of be disambiguated into these questions:

1)
Did Sickles honestly think that making the movement would alleviate a danger to his corps, and to the army?
For this one I think the answer is yes.

2)
Did Meade reasonably act to assuage Sickles' concerns about the vulnerable terrain?
For this one I think the answer is no. Meade did send over Hunt, but manifestly as an attempt to make Sickles be quiet rather than anything else because Hunt agreed with Sickles rather than Meade.

3)
If a corps commander honestly believes that their action will be beneficial to the army, is that something they can exercise their initiative to do even if it is not within the orders they have been given?
This is a philosophy of command question.

4)
Was Sickles' judgement correct?
If it was not, then on the matter of the terrain at least he was not alone in his misjudgement (since Hunt concurred with him).
Other than that, it is a little harder to tell; we can't rerun the battle, but we'd need to disambiguate the things Sickles could reasonably know about and the things he could not.
For example it happens that the angle of Longstreet's attack would have functionally acted as an echelon attack that would have been worse for Sickles than a frontal attack, but this is not something Sickles could reasonably have known. Similarly if Hood doesn't go down and his division remains on track then things are worse; this has no direct causal relationship with Sickles' movement of course.

If the attack Sickles was actually envisaging happens with his corps in the original position, and 5th Corps is still committed to support him, he is probably going to be able to hold (which would mean his judgement was flawed on the matter).
To my mind, it can be "disambiguated" by simply looking at "before" and "after" maps and using common sense - if, as Sickles stated, he felt his original line was too long to be held by his corps, doubling its length was an absurd solution. He also failed to accurately assess the terrain issues regarding the Peach Orchard utilizing his amateur/politician's evaluation of "higher ground". Making the move unilaterally was just a bad military decision - at least according to justifiably reputable authorities who have looked at it strictly and objectively from a military perspective.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
To my mind, it can be "disambiguated" by simply looking at "before" and "after" maps and using common sense - if, as Sickles stated, he felt his original line was too long to be held by his corps, doubling its length was an absurd solution. He also failed to accurately assess the terrain issues regarding the Peach Orchard utilizing his amateur/politician's evaluation of "higher ground". Making the move unilaterally was just a bad military decision - at least according to justifiably reputable authorities who have looked at it strictly and objectively from a military perspective.
Which falls under (4), though the fact that Hunt also considered the terrain problematic doesn't strictly hew to the idea that Sickles' error was from his amateur/politician judgement.

As for making the move unilaterally, that is genuinely a question of military philosophy. The German way of war-fighting would consider it a reasonable decision for the subordinate commander to make (though of course they trained everyone in the same kind of war fighting anyway so there wasn't the amateur problem... didn't stop errors happening anyway though.)
 

29thWisCoG

Private
Joined
Apr 12, 2021
My understanding is that Sickles did not misunderstand where his line was supposed to be. He felt his position was vulnerable to bombardment from the Peach Orchard ridge, which was slightly higher.
As I reread an analysis of the account in the link below, it seems possible Sickles thought the line Meade intended was closer to where he had bivouacked the night before at the Trostle farm house, which if correct, makes sense to me why Sickles wanted to move his line forward to higher ground at the Peach Orchard. However, the intended line was higher than the Trostle farm and Plum Run area and wooded, which would have allowed for a reasonable line of defense from potential artillery positions located at the Peach Orchard. Again, a topo map that also shows wooded areas would be insightful.

http://www.gdg.org/Gettysburg Magazine/sicklesdisaster.html
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Which falls under (4), though the fact that Hunt also considered the terrain problematic doesn't strictly hew to the idea that Sickles' error was from his amateur/politician judgement.

As for making the move unilaterally, that is genuinely a question of military philosophy. The German way of war-fighting would consider it a reasonable decision for the subordinate commander to make (though of course they trained everyone in the same kind of war fighting anyway so there wasn't the amateur problem... didn't stop errors happening anyway though.)
I'm unaware that Hunt thought that the terrain was so comparatively favorable that Sickles should move unilaterally, take up a line that was double the length, create a salient in the middle, and remove himself from coverage of his left and his close support. When the unilateral move results in those factors, I'm wagering that the hypothetical Wehrmacht officer you refer to would consider himself lucky indeed if the only consequences were reduction to the rank of soldat and assignment to latrine details on the Eastern Front.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
As I reread an analysis of the account in the link below, it seems possible Sickles thought the line Meade intended was closer to where he had bivouacked the night before at the Trostle farm house, which if correct, makes sense to me why Sickles wanted to move his line forward to higher ground at the Peach Orchard. However, the intended line was higher than the Trostle farm and Plum Run area and wooded, which would have allowed for a reasonable line of defense from potential artillery positions located at the Peach Orchard. Again, a topo map that also shows wooded areas would be insightful.

http://www.gdg.org/Gettysburg Magazine/sicklesdisaster.html
Or, to put it as Dave Powell stated:

Instead, Sickles' main concern was that the Peach Orchard, if seized by the Rebels, would dominate his own designated position, allowing the Confederates to bring up artillery and savage his troops. One much speculated reason for this fear was Sickles' own experience at Chancellorsville, only two months before. The Third Corps had been forced to give up an exposed salient at Hazel Grove, a piece of elevated, open terrain which the Confederates promptly occupied. From there, Rebel cannon did make life miserable for the Third Corps. If Sickles was indeed recalling Hazel Grove when he gazed at the Peach Orchard, his eye missed several important differences. The first was that at Hazel Grove, the Confederates could use converging fire to concentrate on the Federal line near the Chancellor house; here, the opposite was true. Any Rebel battery that deployed along the Emmitsburg road was subject to converging fire from Union artillery ranged along the entire length of Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. The second was the presence of substantial wooded areas both along the intended line and down in the low ground of his campsites. This tree cover would have enabled Sickles to conceal much of his command from enemy observation and fire from the Peach Orchard, and give his skirmishers cover as they sniped at any enemy artillery deployed along in the open fields along Emmitsburg Road. More experienced officers saw the Peach Orchard for what it was; not a dominating position at all, but instead contested ground, that could be controlled by the Union artillery arrayed all along the Cemetery Ridge line

In other words, amateur hour.
 

Cavalier

First Sergeant
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
The Peach Orchard position, occupied as it was, presents Longstreet with a salient does it not? If I am not mistaken that was where the initial collapse of the 3 rd. Corps began, (a question, could it have done otherwise?). Coupled with flank issues and a line weakened by occupying much more distance than the previous one, rankest of amateurs that I most certainly am, I don't see any advantage to Sickles new position, Hunt's opinion not withstanding.

If I was Meade I would have ripped Sickles a new one, (and enjoyed the h--- out of doing it), political connections regardless.

John
 

Eric Wittenberg

1st Lieutenant
Keeper of the Scales
Joined
Jun 2, 2013
Location
Columbus, OH
Nobody is justified in disobeying a legal order. Armies require discipline. Discipline requires subordinate officers to obey the lawful orders of their superiors. Subordinate officers who refuse to obey the lawful orders of their superiors are useless to the army, no matter how talented they might be.

Sickles was given a lawful order. He intentionally disobeyed it. Had he not lost a leg at Gettysburg, he likely would have been court-martialed, and rightly so.
 
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