Friday, April 4, 2008

Gettysburg: Testing a theory

Revisionism is a popular past time in the field of history. It's a good way to get attention to claim that what everyone "knows" about some historical event is wrong in some fundamental way.

This can even be a healthy corrective in the field, especially when new facts emerge or existing facts are reinterpreted in the light of new knowledge. For example, the story that Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress was known even in his own lifetime, but scarcely credited. Now the tide of opinion seems to have turned, based in part in new DNA evidence, but also a relook at the documentary record.

But often the revisionist view fails to gain traction, usually because there's generally good reason why the conventional wisdom has won acceptance -- the evidence backs it up.

One of the great mysteries of the Battle of Gettysburg was why Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the attack known as Pickett's charge. Certainly his most able lieutenant, Lt. Gen James Longstreet, was vigorously opposed to the attack. Longstreet's opinion was not one to be disregarded lightly, either, being the only general in either army who could reliably organize a multi-divisional attack.
Yet Lee ordered the attack nevertheless. The traditional view is that Lee simply misjudged the effectiveness of his first two days of attacks. Even though he had wrecked three corps of federal troops, the Army of the Potomac had seven corps. At least four were still in good shape on the field and the army wasn't close to defeat. Lee apparently believed that Meade must have heavily reinforced the flanks and therefore would be weak in the center.

Maybe even more critically, Lee recognized he simply had to win on July 3rd or he'd be forced to retreat back to Virginia. It's an easy mental leap from believing one must do something to believing one can do something. So he ordered the try. When Pickett's shattered division and the others returned in pieces Lee was heard to say "It's all my fault." He never explained his decision.

But author Tom Carhart claims he's solved the mystery. In "Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed" (2005) Carhart claims Lee secretly planned to have Jeb Stuart's Cavalry division swoop in from behind the union lines just as Pickett's charge reached its climax, catching the Union army in a vise and shattering it in a Napoleonic-scale decisive victory. He further claims that the plan would have worked except for the heroic defense by the "boy general" George Armstrong Custer that foiled Stuart's attack as it started, off on Low Dutch Road.

Those interested can read a detailed critique of Carhart's argument and scholarship at this link:

My question was, even of Lee had such a plan, could it have worked?

It's very easy for a writer to engage in flights of fancy. Authors can wish away difficulties or ignore them entirely. The spirit of the bayonet can sweep all before it or curtains of steel can make an advance impossible.

Real life, of course, is full of limits, details and difficulties. Real war even more so. It's not possible to test a historical what-if against real life, but it is possible to test a what-if against a wargame's presentation of the event. While not proof, of course, it is evidence. Proof being unavailable in any case, the evidence provided by a wargame, which also has to contend with time, space, fortune and the presence of an opposing will provides a useful check against authorial exuberance.

Most wargames on Gettysburg don't even include the territory to the east of the main battlefield where the cavalry action was fought, but an expansion map provided in the old Avalon Hill General for the 125th Anniversary edition of Gettysburg did. This provides an easy-to-play what-if.

It might be objected that the 1988 Gettysburg was a simple game, but it's my experience that more complex wargames such as This Hallowed Ground tend to add many limits and increase the friction of war, so it's highly unlikely you'd be able to do something in a complex wargame that you'd be unable to do in a simple one. The simpler game is much more lenient.

And a quick glance at the set-up for the July 3rd scenario, modified to account for the additional map space, demonstrates that Carhart's theory is farcial.

The cavalry action is so far from the center of the Union line that even completely unopposed, Stuart's men could not possibly have arrived on the scene until after the fate of the charge was decided one way or the other. The game map shows the route to be about 20-21 hexes from Stuart's start point to the middle of the Federal line. As the movement factor of the cav brigades is 7 and they can move double speed along the roads, it will still take two unopposed turns of movement to arrive on the scene.

Cathart seems to believe that Stuart could simply ride down the road in column in order to make it on schedule, but that's nonsense. No soldier with a sense of self-preservation would do any such thing. There would be no way Stuart could know whether at any moment he'd be ambushed, so a leisurely road march is out of the question. Indeed, a single opposing unit astride the road would be enough to throw the advance off kilter.

The most favorable counterfactual for Lee would have been if Custer was not present on that flank. He wasn't supposed to be, but the 2nd Cavalry Division commander, Gregg, diverted him. Gregg could simply not have overstepped his bounds or Custer could have simply refused his order. Gregg, after all, was not his boss. But Stuart and Lee couldn't know this. In fact, there could have been more in the way just as easily. There was no way the Confederates could know there would a clear path for Stuart.

And clearly there was a lot more than Custer standing in the way. Unless paralyzed into complete inaction, the Army of the Potomac had ample resources available to slow down Stuart's ride until it was too late. Stuart would have had to ride right past the Army of the Potomac's Artillery Reserve artillery park. It's hard to imagine that a few battery commanders wouldn't have taken the initiative to engage the rebel horsemen. The artillery branch was probably the most professional in the army and battery leaders were accustomed to independent action. One battery across the road would have been enough.

Lee did order Stuart to attack, but it seems much more likely he just wanted Stuart in position to complete the hoped-for victory with a cavalry pursuit, not try the impossible task of a coordinated joint attack in the pre-radio age.

One can't know what Lee was thinking. He didn't tell us. But it seems unlikely to me that Lee, an excellent battlefield general, would have come up with such an unlikely and impossible plan as Carhart proposes.

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