What Was The Strategic Thinking On This Objection to Pickett's Charge?

MikeyB

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2018
Sorry, I know Pickett's charge has been debated tons here. But one question is not clear to me.
Let's say that everything goes right for Pickett's charge. Alexander drives off the Federal artillery, Hancock doesn't have a strong cup of coffee that morning, and the Confederate advance is largely successful in driving off the II corp and causing a split in the Federal line.

Then what? What did Lee think would happen next? What was his response to the objection that any support to take advantage of a breach would have to come from miles away versus the Federals with the superior interior lines and who could get a lot more men there quicker?

Did he think that attacks on the Federal flanks would pin down any support from coming? And this was just mis-execution? Did he think that his men would drive off the Cloverleafs, causing a general panic and the Federal army and will to fight would just evaporate? Did he think that his reinforcements in support could beat the Federals reinforcements? You've got 3 divisions, just walked miles over open ground in the hot July sun, took artillery fire, drove off very veteran troops. Sure, they're in the breach. But now they're disorganized and unsupported. Feel like Federals can counterattack from both flanks and destroy them.

As I think about how these conversations with Longstreet may have gone, I just never understand why Lee didn't say "That's a good point Pete!" when this topic comes up.
 

DMH

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Joined
Jun 3, 2021
The entire story of Gettysburg is that it is always the Federal army that has reserves available at the critical moment, something that seems obvious in hindsight. I think that is the answer to your question though, everything is obvious in hindsight.
Agreed on this point and something that is often a “struggle” for me in reading a lot of military history. I don’t know if anyone has read Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy on the US efforts in the liberation of Europe but he makes a good point about you have to try and remember that many great historical events that everyone is now so familiar with were not forgone conclusions when they were occurring. When you are so familiar with events like D-Day, Pickett’s Charge, etc., sometimes it helps (at least for me) to keep that in mind.

Sorry for the digression, but I think it’s appropriate because I agree with the original poster that it’s hard for me to see what the next move is after a breakthrough is achieved. If I remember right did Pickett or another commander send back word they they needed reinforcements to exploit a gap and essentially word was sent back “I have no replacements to send you”?
 

dgfred

Corporal
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
I am no expert but I think- crash their middle with support/pressure from both wings. Union draws some men from wings and uses reserves to stop crash. Union army beaten badly and is in full retreat towards Washington/Baltimore/etc.
 

Rhea Cole

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Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
In the spring of 1863 three armies were on the move. The Army of the Tennessee was on the verge of accepting the surrender of the Gibraltar of the Mississippi & striking an entire CSA army off the board. In Middle Tennessee the Army of the Cumberland open a campaign on a 50 mile wide front that would ultimately drive CSA forces out of Tennessee.

The predictable tactical failure of a 15,000 man frontal assault in nowhere Pennsylvania is side show compared to the strategic blows being struck in Tennessee & Mississippi. Even if Lee had scored some kind of tactical victory he had no food, no fodder, no ammunition & no way to get any. Retreat was inevitable. As events would show, Lee had no option but to hang on for as long as he could until the inevitable defeat.
 

rpkennedy

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Location
Carlisle, PA
Agreed on this point and something that is often a “struggle” for me in reading a lot of military history. I don’t know if anyone has read Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy on the US efforts in the liberation of Europe but he makes a good point about you have to try and remember that many great historical events that everyone is now so familiar with were not forgone conclusions when they were occurring. When you are so familiar with events like D-Day, Pickett’s Charge, etc., sometimes it helps (at least for me) to keep that in mind.

Sorry for the digression, but I think it’s appropriate because I agree with the original poster that it’s hard for me to see what the next move is after a breakthrough is achieved. If I remember right did Pickett or another commander send back word they they needed reinforcements to exploit a gap and essentially word was sent back “I have no replacements to send you”?

Pickett for sure sent 3 couriers to Cadmus Wilcox, begging him to advance in order to support his right. In fact, when the third rider approached Wilcox, he basically waved him away while telling him, "I know! I know!"

Ryan
 

madhattar88

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Joined
Jun 6, 2021
I feel this quote from a surgeon in the 13th South Carolina pretty much sums up the thought process. "Seven days later, after the division had crossed into Pennsylvania, Dr. Welch, the surgeon of the 13th South Carolina, wrote, “I have never seen our army so healthy and in such gay spirits. How can they be whipped?” This quote is taken from “Never Have I Seen Such a Charge” Pender’s Light Division at Gettysburg, July 1 - D. Scott Hartwig
 

jackt62

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New York City
Successful assaults on an enemy's position often resulted in the sudden collapse and disintegration of that line (Jackson's flank attack at Chancellorsville, VI Corps capture of Ewell's Corps at Sailors Creek, Early's assault on Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah at Cedar Creek). Therefore, had Pickett's Charge succeeded in breaching and securing the II Corps line, it is logical to assume a rout of that Corps, and a likely derangement of the flanking Corps, particularly if Pickett was supported as Lee had intended. There are of course, several possible scenarios even if that had played out: 1) Union forces regroup and maintain a stronghold at Cemetery and Culps Hill.
2) Meade orders a complete withdrawal of the AotP to the Pipe Creek Line. In either case, exhausted Confederate forces might have simply consolidated its gains along the Cemetery Ridge line and declared victory. But given the tenuous supply line and diminishing ammunition and supplies, Lee might have waited a day or so before heading back to Virginia, basking in the glow of another powerful blow to the Union army. However, from a larger strategic picture, as noted by @Rhea Cole, even a Gettysburg success would not have muted the more important defeats suffered by the Confederacy in the west.
 

MikeyB

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Sep 13, 2018
Successful assaults on an enemy's position often resulted in the sudden collapse and disintegration of that line (Jackson's flank attack at Chancellorsville, VI Corps capture of Ewell's Corps at Sailors Creek, Early's assault on Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah at Cedar Creek). Therefore, had Pickett's Charge succeeded in breaching and securing the II Corps line, it is logical to assume a rout of that Corps, and a likely derangement of the flanking Corps, particularly if Pickett was supported as Lee had intended. There are of course, several possible scenarios even if that had played out: 1) Union forces regroup and maintain a stronghold at Cemetery and Culps Hill.
2) Meade orders a complete withdrawal of the AotP to the Pipe Creek Line. In either case, exhausted Confederate forces might have simply consolidated its gains along the Cemetery Ridge line and declared victory. But given the tenuous supply line and diminishing ammunition and supplies, Lee might have waited a day or so before heading back to Virginia, basking in the glow of another powerful blow to the Union army. However, from a larger strategic picture, as noted by @Rhea Cole, even a Gettysburg success would not have muted the more important defeats suffered by the Confederacy in the west.

Thanks, that's what was I looking for. That perhaps the expectation was that a breach melts the Union's willingness to fight and rather than supporting units coming in and repelling the breach, the whole line just routs.

That that won't happen, I can say IS obvious in hindsight, but I can see why if you truly thought you were going to get the breach, you would be willing to believe it and take the chance. Demoralized Union army post Chancellorsville, why wouldn't they just disintegrate if they were pushed out of their prepared works on their own soil? I can see that.
 

rpkennedy

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Thanks, that's what was I looking for. That perhaps the expectation was that a breach melts the Union's willingness to fight and rather than supporting units coming in and repelling the breach, the whole line just routs.

That that won't happen, I can say IS obvious in hindsight, but I can see why if you truly thought you were going to get the breach, you would be willing to believe it and take the chance. Demoralized Union army post Chancellorsville, why wouldn't they just disintegrate if they were pushed out of their prepared works on their own soil? I can see that.

It was not an unreasonable expectation but it was definitely a desperate attempt. Unfortunately for Lee, there were reserves available to contest a breakthrough on Cemetery Ridge.

Ryan
 

Rhea Cole

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Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
What has been left out of the discussion is Lee’s announced strategic goal for his offensive. In his letters to Davis, Lee cogently stated his analysis & reasoning. The CSA was running out of recruits. Not only were combat losses not being made up, desertion was increasing at exponential levels. Lee believed that 1863 was the last year that the CSA would have the manpower to successfully confront the Union army.

Lee’s conclusion was that breaking the morale of the Union population was the only way independence would be achieved. He proposed making disingenuous peace offers & directly engaging peace parties in the North. To that end, Lee proposed to defeat the A of the P on Pennsylvania & take Washington. He believed that would cause a collapse of Northern morale & herald the success of peace party members to congress. Lee’s analysis was spot on.

Of course, a meeting engagement in nowhere Pennsylvania was never a part of Lee’s strategic plan. Unlike Sherman, Lee had not faked his opponents into dividing their forces to defend points he had no intention to attack. Instead, he ran head on into the entire A of the P after an an advance of only 40 miles into Union territory.

From the first shot fired on the Battle of Gettysburg, there was no way for Lee to achieve his announced strategic objectives. As history shows, CW era armies were incapable of winning a battle of annihilation. Even in victory, the ratio of casualties in both winning & looser were remarkably similar. Even if the Battle of Gettysburg was some kind of technical tactical victory, the A of NV was physically incapable of achieving the kind of victory Lee’s strategy required.
 
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James N.

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I feel this quote from a surgeon in the 13th South Carolina pretty much sums up the thought process. "Seven days later, after the division had crossed into Pennsylvania, Dr. Welch, the surgeon of the 13th South Carolina, wrote, “I have never seen our army so healthy and in such gay spirits. How can they be whipped?” This quote is taken from “Never Have I Seen Such a Charge” Pender’s Light Division at Gettysburg, July 1 - D. Scott Hartwig
Or as Lee himself is supposed to have put it, he believed his army was invincible - maybe he was somehow expecting the little details to take care of themselves!
 

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
Did he think that attacks on the Federal flanks would pin down any support from coming? And this was just mis-execution? Did he think that his men would drive off the Cloverleafs, causing a general panic and the Federal army and will to fight would just evaporate? Did he think that his reinforcements in support could beat the Federals reinforcements? You've got 3 divisions, just walked miles over open ground in the hot July sun, took artillery fire, drove off very veteran troops. Sure, they're in the breach. But now they're disorganized and unsupported. Feel like Federals can counterattack from both flanks and destroy them.
The answer is that what Lee is doing (as of the 3rd July) is executing a classic Napoleonic move - that is, to draw off reserves from both flanks and then break through the centre.

The reason that you give for why this would not work is one which makes sense on the face of it, but if this reason was true then Napoleon's classic tactic would not work in Napoleon's day. In fact Napoleon's classic tactic often worked, which means we must look elsewhere.


What's actually going on when the centre breaks in this way, in a "typical" battle, is governed by two factors. One of them is that disorder and panic are infectious (cf. at Waterloo, where the Imperial Guard breaking causes the entire French army to rout, for just one example; another is the 9th Corps collapse at Antietam) and so the units who were part of the line will recoil away and be disordered themselves at the same time that the attacking units are disordered.

The second is that the most useful way to actually resolve a crisis like this is for the defender to commit reserves to a counterattack - the fresh reserves are organized, were not part of the previous fighting (so are not disordered by the ongoing fighting), and can arrive before the attacking units have recovered their momentum. This is why the Napoleonic moves emphasizes drawing off reserves first and then breaking through the centre second, or drawing in reserves on one flank and then coming around the other flank, or a number of combinations - Napoleonic warfare is based on forcing the commitment of enemy reserves and then attacking somewhere reserves are not available. This is because the commitment of reserves is by far the most efficient way to reverse a difficult situation.


Returning to Gettysburg specifically, we might notice that on two occasions so far Lee has managed to create a situation in which all of Meade's available formed reserves have been committed somewhere other than where a subsequent attack by Lee is being made. (The first is on Day Two, where the brawl involving Longstreet and Sickles draws in 5th Corps along with the rest of Meade's disposable troops; the second is on Day Three, where Meade has no remaining formed reserves - 6th Corps has been committed.)



So what happens if Pickett's charge succeeds in taking the position? The situation now looks roughly like this:

1625490903498.png


And Pickett's men can pressure the Union line on Culps and Cemetery Hills from behind, which puts them in an untenable position (as they're being attacked from behind as well as in front, a situation which is detrimental to say the least to the integrity of any army in history ever). Being outflanked and hit from the rear as well as the front is the kind of thing that has destroyed even elite formations throughout history.
 

JeffBrooks

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Agreed on this point and something that is often a “struggle” for me in reading a lot of military history. I don’t know if anyone has read Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy on the US efforts in the liberation of Europe but he makes a good point about you have to try and remember that many great historical events that everyone is now so familiar with were not forgone conclusions when they were occurring. When you are so familiar with events like D-Day, Pickett’s Charge, etc., sometimes it helps (at least for me) to keep that in mind.

If D-Day had failed, we would today be talking about how in the world Eisenhower and the rest of the Allied high command could ever have been so foolish as to imagine such a complicated plan might actually work.
 

MikeyB

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2018
The answer is that what Lee is doing (as of the 3rd July) is executing a classic Napoleonic move - that is, to draw off reserves from both flanks and then break through the centre.

The reason that you give for why this would not work is one which makes sense on the face of it, but if this reason was true then Napoleon's classic tactic would not work in Napoleon's day. In fact Napoleon's classic tactic often worked, which means we must look elsewhere.


What's actually going on when the centre breaks in this way, in a "typical" battle, is governed by two factors. One of them is that disorder and panic are infectious (cf. at Waterloo, where the Imperial Guard breaking causes the entire French army to rout, for just one example; another is the 9th Corps collapse at Antietam) and so the units who were part of the line will recoil away and be disordered themselves at the same time that the attacking units are disordered.

The second is that the most useful way to actually resolve a crisis like this is for the defender to commit reserves to a counterattack - the fresh reserves are organized, were not part of the previous fighting (so are not disordered by the ongoing fighting), and can arrive before the attacking units have recovered their momentum. This is why the Napoleonic moves emphasizes drawing off reserves first and then breaking through the centre second, or drawing in reserves on one flank and then coming around the other flank, or a number of combinations - Napoleonic warfare is based on forcing the commitment of enemy reserves and then attacking somewhere reserves are not available. This is because the commitment of reserves is by far the most efficient way to reverse a difficult situation.


Returning to Gettysburg specifically, we might notice that on two occasions so far Lee has managed to create a situation in which all of Meade's available formed reserves have been committed somewhere other than where a subsequent attack by Lee is being made. (The first is on Day Two, where the brawl involving Longstreet and Sickles draws in 5th Corps along with the rest of Meade's disposable troops; the second is on Day Three, where Meade has no remaining formed reserves - 6th Corps has been committed.)



So what happens if Pickett's charge succeeds in taking the position? The situation now looks roughly like this:

View attachment 406990

And Pickett's men can pressure the Union line on Culps and Cemetery Hills from behind, which puts them in an untenable position (as they're being attacked from behind as well as in front, a situation which is detrimental to say the least to the integrity of any army in history ever). Being outflanked and hit from the rear as well as the front is the kind of thing that has destroyed even elite formations throughout history.
Very informative post, thank you
 

MikeyB

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2018
The answer is that what Lee is doing (as of the 3rd July) is executing a classic Napoleonic move - that is, to draw off reserves from both flanks and then break through the centre.

The reason that you give for why this would not work is one which makes sense on the face of it, but if this reason was true then Napoleon's classic tactic would not work in Napoleon's day. In fact Napoleon's classic tactic often worked, which means we must look elsewhere.


What's actually going on when the centre breaks in this way, in a "typical" battle, is governed by two factors. One of them is that disorder and panic are infectious (cf. at Waterloo, where the Imperial Guard breaking causes the entire French army to rout, for just one example; another is the 9th Corps collapse at Antietam) and so the units who were part of the line will recoil away and be disordered themselves at the same time that the attacking units are disordered.

The second is that the most useful way to actually resolve a crisis like this is for the defender to commit reserves to a counterattack - the fresh reserves are organized, were not part of the previous fighting (so are not disordered by the ongoing fighting), and can arrive before the attacking units have recovered their momentum. This is why the Napoleonic moves emphasizes drawing off reserves first and then breaking through the centre second, or drawing in reserves on one flank and then coming around the other flank, or a number of combinations - Napoleonic warfare is based on forcing the commitment of enemy reserves and then attacking somewhere reserves are not available. This is because the commitment of reserves is by far the most efficient way to reverse a difficult situation.


Returning to Gettysburg specifically, we might notice that on two occasions so far Lee has managed to create a situation in which all of Meade's available formed reserves have been committed somewhere other than where a subsequent attack by Lee is being made. (The first is on Day Two, where the brawl involving Longstreet and Sickles draws in 5th Corps along with the rest of Meade's disposable troops; the second is on Day Three, where Meade has no remaining formed reserves - 6th Corps has been committed.)



So what happens if Pickett's charge succeeds in taking the position? The situation now looks roughly like this:

View attachment 406990

And Pickett's men can pressure the Union line on Culps and Cemetery Hills from behind, which puts them in an untenable position (as they're being attacked from behind as well as in front, a situation which is detrimental to say the least to the integrity of any army in history ever). Being outflanked and hit from the rear as well as the front is the kind of thing that has destroyed even elite formations throughout history.
So a big part of this, other than the assumption that the line kind of just melts away upon a breakthrough is that there would be no reserves available or they'd be otherwise pinned down. Poor coordination on the flanks on July 3rd which ultimately must rest with Lee I think.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
So a big part of this, other than the assumption that the line kind of just melts away upon a breakthrough is that there would be no reserves available or they'd be otherwise pinned down. Poor coordination on the flanks on July 3rd which ultimately must rest with Lee I think.
The assumption (about the line melting away) is pretty much empirically correct. It's what happens, either the line holds or it breaks and this is pretty much binary unless the line has been told to give ground.

But the "no reserves available" is true. Meade's reserves are all committed as of the afternoon of the 3rd - he has no formed reserves left. There are unengaged brigades like the flank brigades of 6th Corps, but they are not reserves.
 

MikeyB

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Joined
Sep 13, 2018
The assumption (about the line melting away) is pretty much empirically correct. It's what happens, either the line holds or it breaks and this is pretty much binary unless the line has been told to give ground.

But the "no reserves available" is true. Meade's reserves are all committed as of the afternoon of the 3rd - he has no formed reserves left. There are unengaged brigades like the flank brigades of 6th Corps, but they are not reserves.
So who are the troops who come in and plug Armistead's breakthrough? is it just adjacent regiments from the line, versus reserves waiting behind the line?
 

thomas aagaard

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Location
Denmark
When Longstreet broke the federal lines at Chickamauga a good part of the federal army did sort of melt away... so it did happen.
-----

When an attack in 1800-1815 made a hole the next move would usually be following up with cavalry to spread fear and chaos to make sure the enemy run away.

But One thing civil war armies lacked was proper battlefield cavalry and good terrain for its use. This made it much harder to properly exploit an opening (since cavalry could move much quicker than infantry on the battlefield... when needed) and this made it hard for the winner to convert a tactical victory on the battlefield into a strategic victory.
 
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