The 3-day Battle of Gettysburg

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The 3-day Battle of Gettysburg went down as the largest and bloodiest battle to take place in the Western hemisphere, and also as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, since it was a key component to the Confederacy’s defeat. Despite the odds, and advice from his fellow commanders, General Robert E. Lee devised a plan to attack the Union on their own turf, in hopes of overtaking Cemetery Ridge and permanently moving the battle north.

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His battle plan was simply to find the most vulnerable part of the Union line and make an assault, panicking the Union line and causing a retreat. As a high commander with a winning track record, General Lee had gained the respect and trust of his men, as well as his top commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet. So when he presented them with a choice, A choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania, his men agreed to charge the northern territory. However, the Confederates did not wait to weigh in on other viable options, and Lee proceeded with what would be his final major offensive battle. Lee’s defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg has many factors to blame, the main factors being a poor choice of attack strategy given the current circumstances, the use of faulty artillery, and the lack of strong leadership and coherence in the artillery unit. We will diverge into these topics to see how things went awry during the three days at battle.

To start, Lee’s battle plan did not align with his army’s capabilities. One article explained the usually battle-wise Lee depended too much on his experience and not enough on cold reasoning in the light of the latest information available. An example of this is when Lee miscalculated the amount of men needed to cover the battle grounds to have an effective assault. To compare, Lee’s army was comprised of 50,000 men and 34 brigades of infantry, while the Union had nearly 80,000 men and 51 brigades of infantry, already putting the south at a disadvantage to defend themselves. However, General Lee kept on towards his goal of shifting the war north, and out of Virginia as harvesting season approached. The three quarter-mile open ground shooting range left soldiers exposed, and susceptible to a cannon fire attack. Since Lee’s army was outnumbered from the start, it took more energy to cover the grounds. To make matters worse, General Lee wanted to attack from the offensive, charging the Union in hopes of breaking them at their weakest point. The Union’s commanding general, General George G. Meade, who was also a very experienced and well-respected leader, chose to fight on the defensive side, and used a fish-hook formation to cover the battle grounds with his massive army. This decision was enough to ruin Lee’s agenda, since there would be no open or weak areas in General Meade’s line up for Lee’s army to attack. Lee’s army would eventually have to retreat, or surrender, since they had no abundant supply sources like the Union had, waiting for them just a few miles away. All of these reasons seem like rookie mistakes for the experienced general so it was unexpected that Lee’s poor strategy and lack of planning would eventually contribute to their loss at the Battle of Gettysburg.

There were many factors that influenced General Lee’s chances of a victory from the start, one of which was Lee’s artillery unit, which some would say is the most important unit of a successful army. The rapid-firing guns produced so much smoke when they were firing that the soldiers did not realize that their shots were not as accurate as they intended and were flying over the union soldiers. A soldier from the Union side had stated that the South’s artillery “was by no means as effective as it should have been, nine-tenths of their shot passing over our men. Officers tell me that the case and pieces of shell came down like hail, so high over their head [that] they did not burst.” This issue had a heavy effect on Lee’s performance, since they could not make an effective assault, the battle carried on for longer than necessary. This exhausted artillery resources, but no one seemed quite aware of how much ammunition was being used and wasted. In his official Gettysburg report, Lee did admit that his artillery’s depletion issues were “unknown to me. Lee was questioned about his negligence to check on the status of artillery, since he and the artillery commander would be the main leadership positions to blame. They had been at battle for two days already before the issue was addressed, which was plenty of time to devour a sizeable amount of ammunition. Lee was once again met with the consequences of his poor centralized leadership and lack of planning for a three-day battle. The difference between each sides commanding leadership became more distinct; to compare, the Union’s commander, General Meade, inquired about ammunition supplies for his artillery as soon as he arrived in Gettysburg. This was simply not an acceptable mistake; questions arose about Lee’s army having enough ammunition to fight for much longer, which took a toll on his reputation and his performance at the Battle of Gettysburg, ultimately contributing to his defeat.

The use of artillery itself was not the only issue that led the Confederates to defeat; their officer in charge of the artillery was less than effective at his job. Officer Pendleton, a West Point Graduate and seemingly qualified on paper, did not hold himself to these expected standards. He had repeatedly shown weakness in the position that he held. This was seen during the First Battle of Manassas where it is alleged that he and his soldiers cowered when they were under enemy fire. He also struggled to make an impression during the Seven Days’ Battles, when he was known to have disappeared during battle with the reserve artillery. Pendleton’s recurring incompetence did not go unnoticed, and lead Confederate John H. Chamberlayne to voice his concerns, “Pendleton is Lee’s weakness. Pendleton is like the elephant, we have him and we don’t know what on Earth to do with him, and it costs a devil of a sight to feed him.” When Lee had finally come to terms with the severity of Pendleton’s actions, he restricted his duties within his artillery command so that he had little control over the dictation of use of artillery in battle. Although Lee made these changes, it was too late to reverse the damage of Pendleton’s leadership; Lee could not have a successful cohesive force on the battlefield without a strong leader in the artillery command.

In the end, the south was disappointed; everyone had high expectations for General Lee. He continued to miss opportunities and repeatedly failed to execute even the most basic tasks. He was no match for the Union’s army, who came prepared and well organized, with superior weaponry and positioning. Lee’s allies even lost confidence in his leadership, Alexander, Pendleton’s inferior officer, stating “the fact is that like all the rest of the army I believed that it would come out right, because General Lee had planned it.” With the authority to dictate their next move, counteract the enemy’s efforts, execute orders and coordinate the entire army’s corporation, he seemed to fall short on all spectrums of leadership. It seemed to be one mishap after another, and although Lee was commanding officer, many other people played a part in their defeat. Overall, General Lee’s disorganized battle plan, his negligence to check on his army’s supplies, and his failure to have commanding officers he can trust at his side, ultimately lead the Confederates to defeat.

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