Top 5 Lessons From The Battle of Gettysburg: 150 Years On
Image Credit: flickr/Jack Keene

Top 5 Lessons From The Battle of Gettysburg: 150 Years On

0 Likes
6 comments

Today marks the 150th anniversary of day one of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, among the most consequential — if not the most consequential — battlefield conflagrations ever to shake North America.

The Naval Diplomat family has Civil War history, albeit history unrelated to Gettysburg. One of my wife's kinsmen fell in action with Union forces at the Battle of Stones River, at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, near Nashville. Here's the spooky part, or rather spooky parts: my wife's ancestor was a Holmes, whereas one of my ancestors, a McDonald, stood among the Confederate forces arrayed there. And Murfreesboro, now part of greater Nashville, happens to be my birthplace. You can't make this stuff up.

Here endeth the detour into family lore. On to my Top 5 Takeaways from the Battle of Gettysburg:

Battle by accident. We often assume that master tacticians hatch master plans that yield great victories. Gettysburg implies that master tacticians are those who improvise on the fly amid shifting surroundings. Neither Confederate commander Robert E. Lee nor Union commander George Meade set out to fight for the town, for the nearby heights, or for any other piece of local terrain. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, and Meade's Army of the Potomac followed. They met at a then-obscure town in the Pennsylvania outback. Opportunism matters in combat situations.

Dispersal v. concentration. Lee's army had dispersed across southern Pennsylvania to forage when Meade's more or less concentrated host crossed the Potomac River into northern Maryland to constitute a threat. Lee hastily gathered his army lest isolated units be entrapped and annihilated, subjecting the Army of Northern Virginia to the death of a thousand cuts. Clausewitz's counsel that there's no higher or simpler law than to concentrate at decisive points on the map at crucial junctures applies. As Corbett observes, channeling Clausewitz, successful military forces exhibit a sort of elasticity. They disperse and concentrate as circumstances warrant.

Battlefield leadership. Friends of this blog are familiar with Plutarch, who saw past lives — particularly those of classical Greeks and Romans — as guides to the good life. Had Plutarch been alive and writing ca. 1900, he may well have chosen the figure of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, colonel of the Twentieth Maine Regiment, as the subject for one of his capsule biographies. This warrior-professor left his duties at Bowdoin College to take up arms in the Union cause. Chamberlain and his doughty Mainers occupied Little Round Top, one of two heights overlooking Gettysburg, following a disastrous first day of fighting. Their heroics helped keep the Confederates from turning the Union left — and potentially collapsing the Union position as a whole. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for stalwart leadership under fire.

Elegiac character. President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg the fall after July's bloodletting. There the president delivered his Gettysburg Address, a marvel of brevity and eloquence. Modeled on Pericles' Funeral Address, Lincoln's oration exhorted the living to honor the dead by prosecuting their cause to victory. His words consecrated Gettysburg as a central event in American history, imparting political significance far beyond the immediate battlefield results.

Diplomatic ramifications. Great Britain and France had flirted with the idea of mediating an end to the struggle between Blue and Gray. Diplomatic intervention would have heartened Southerners while lending new credence to the secessionist cause and, perhaps, making foreign material support available to the beleaguered Confederacy. But no government hitches its prestige to a losing cause. Gettysburg helped debunk the myth of Lee's invincibility, and thus ensconced the Confederacy in foreign perceptions as the weaker horse in the contest. The clash, then, was about far more than repulsing a Confederate invasion of the North. It was about reaffirming that the Union was a heavyweight power and the likely victor.

Comments
6
jack Lawrence
July 8, 2013 at 04:08

A couple if points.
As to the two armies, there can be no comparison. Sherman, IIRC, called 1863 the year in which “we entered our professional period.”
Hooker/Meade were able to supply almost their campaign by rail (The B&O being essentially secure out to Harper’s Ferry during the campaign). Meade used trains of wagons. The AoP had wire communication. The ANV used courier.
And as The Diplomat pointed out (as had Hattaway et al in their earlier work), the Federal Army ruled wherever the Navy could rake them. The Confederates had no such sway. And crucially, Lincoln finally thrashed his way into the position of a unified sea/land command, with the ultimate authority delegated unto a single individual. The Confederacy did not do this into 1865.

As to Lee’s pursuing the offensive, he needed to gather Hus army to escape.
It was scattered over 40 miles or more. The enemy was in a blocking postion along his line of communication.
Lee was simply concentrating his army (not at Gettysburg) at a single point following news the Meade was moving north. The battle was an accident. Two days later, with the ANV concentrated at
Cash town and the Federals out if their blocking position, Lee would have withdrawn.

Early in the afternoon if July 3, 1863, between 1:00 and 1:30, Grumble Jones received instructions fro Robert E. Lee to seize and hold the road at Cashtown, the gateway to Montery Pass, securing Lee’s retreat route. During Pickett’s charge, Jones was fighting the Battle of Cash town.
Lee was fighting to pin the AoP. He was on his way home before the battle ended.

Regards,
Jack

jack Lawrence
July 8, 2013 at 04:05

A couple if points.
As to the two armies, there can be no comparison. Sherman, IIRC, called 1863 the year in which “we entered our professional period.”
Hooker/Meade were able to supply almost their campaign by rail (The B&O being essentially secure out to Harper’s Ferry during the campaign). Meade used trains of wagons. The AoP had wire communication. The ANV used courier.
And as The Diplomat pointed out (as had Hattaway et al in their earlier work), the Federal Army ruled wherever the Navy could rake them. The Confederates had no such sway. And crucially, Lincoln finally thrashed his way into the position of a unified sea/land command, with the ultimate authority delegated unto a single individual. The Confederacy did not do this into 1865.

As to Lee’s pursuing the offensive, he needed to gather Hus army to escape.
It was scattered over 40 miles or more. The enemy was in a blocking postion along his line of communication.
Lee was simply concentrating his army (not at Gettysburg) at a single point following news the Meade was moving north. The battle was an accident. Two days later, with the ANV concentrated at
Cash town and the Federals out if their blocking position, Lee would have withdrawn.

Early in the afternoon if July 3, 1863, between 1:00 and 1:30, Grumble Jones received instructions fro Robert E. Lee to seize and hold the road at Cashtown, the gateway to Montery Pass, securing Lee’s retreat route. During Pickett’s charge, Jones was fighting the Battle of Cash town.

Whit
July 5, 2013 at 21:52

     Reading this, a day after the family and I visited the battlefield, I struck by a sixth lesson.  Gettysburg, and the Civil War in general, was period in history when technical change made the levels of war (strategic-operational-tactical) move in opposite directions.  Lee's invasion of the North was a strategically offensive move, but tactically, technology improvements in firepower and lethality gave huge advantages to the defender.  Ultimately the campaign (and arguably the South's war) failed because once the two armies bumped into each other and committed to fight at Gettysburg, Lee continued to think in uniformly offensive terms.  Pickett's charge on day 3 is the prime example of the strength of the tactical defense. 

     None of the generals on either side at Gettysburg truly realized this historical dynamic in the moment.  Arguably, the only general who “got it” was Grant in his final campaign of the war, when he realized he was going to have to endure asymmetries in casualties suffered at the tactical level in order to strategically attrit and defeat the South.  He was widely labeled a ‘butcher’ for this solution at the time!

     Given The Diplomat’s Asia focus, a question for strategists is whether we are at a such an inflection point today in the East Asia littoral?  Have (or will) improvements in sensors and long-range precision fires created a level of lethality such that the real question is not anti-access-vs-power-projection, but whether we must learn to balance a strategic and operational approach of direction (offensive or defensive) with a tactical approach of the opposite? 

jack Lawrence
July 2, 2013 at 21:21

Lee had other calvary besides Stuart.
He failed to deploy them to comoensate..
Regards,
Jack Lawrence

firefall
July 2, 2013 at 13:52

Ahem. The top One Lesson of Gettysburg? Don't loose your grip on your scouting screen when in the middle of invading enemy territory.

jack Lawrence
July 2, 2013 at 13:02

Lee never wanted to fight a battle that far north. He said so in his report to Jefferson Davis the following January

The AoP did not shadow the ANV. Hooker initially wanted to seize Richmond, but was told not to.
When Lee slipped around Hooker’s and went up the Cumberland Valley, Hooker did not pursue Lee. Save for wing under Reynolds, the AoP remained in Lee’s rear, in a blocking position. Lee had trapped himself. Hooker remained in that position. When Meade assumed command, the two armies were in the same position. Meade’s inclination was not to seek battle with Lee, but to redeploy at Pipe’s Creek. The two armies, in a classic meeting engagement, blundered into each other at Gettysburg.
It was not Lee nor Meade that decided the fates of the two armies, and it was not the application’s of Clausewitz’s principles. It was the decision of two subordinates, Beth, who was under orders not to bring about a general engagement, and Reynolds, who was bereft of any orders on the subject whatsoever. Gettysburg was, at most, a costly engagement that succeeded in draining southern strength. To find true military genius, one must look west, to Vicksburg where Grant had sundered the Confederacy into two pieces, and Tullahoma, where the first time in history, one army turned the other on the axis if a railroad, driving the Confederates into Chattanooga.

The real genius at Gettysburg was in November.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
required
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment
required

Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief