The reason the North won Battle of Gettysburg
Why the North Won the Battle of Gettysburg
Modern historians have labeled the American Civil War as the first modern armed conflict given the use of post-Napoleonic tactics and extensive use of reconnaissance and intelligence before the battles. During the conflict, both sides tested and put to use a myriad of innovative battle tactics that changed the paradigms on how wars were fought, but also increased the casualties. The battle of Gettysburg is one of those battles on which superior planning and the use of defensive tactics, along with better equipment and higher moral granted the victory to the Union army against a Confederate military who was exhausting its resources in a fight they could hardly win. Therefore, this essay intends to show how the use of better tactics and a series of mistakes made by General Robert E. Lee turned the tides of the battle of Gettysburg after a first day that seemed a Southern victory. Also, it demonstrates how Federal General Meade’s harshly criticized defensive tactics contributed to ensuring the victory to his cause.
Keywords: Battle of Gettysburg, American Civil War, Pickett’s Charge, Robert E. Lee, George G. Meade.
Why the North Won the Battle of Gettysburg
The American Civil War has been referred to as one of the last ancient wars. This means that during the conflict, both sides’ commanders tested and tried many modern warfare methods that are now staples in how military forces are commanded. At the beginning of the battle, both armies were issued outdated and nearly obsolete weapons that barely worked. Nevertheless, at the moment of the Battle of Gettysburg, both armies had better equipment and better tactics. On the other hand, although the innovations introduced in the American battlefields during the second half of the 19th century, the armies still used Napoleonic-style tactics based on close-knit formations firing volleys of musket fire to each other, as well of bayonet charges after producing the desired amount of casualties on the other side.
The Battle of Gettysburg is an example of how the use of modern warfare tactics, good commandment, along with the employment of modern weaponry helped the Union to withstand the successive charges of Confederate soldiers during the three days of the battle. However, it is impossible to speak about a sole reason that drove the confederation to defeat. Consequently, this essay shall cover the military aspect of the southern defeat, focusing on the tactical dimensions of both armies’ performance during the battle.
During the Civil War, military leaders believed that “decisive battles should be sought and that a conclusive collision of armies was the goal of military operations.” (Goss, 2004). This means that to ensure properly the end of a war, a series of major confrontations had to happen. This Napoleonic thought that aims to end wars through confrontations is quite costly regarding the amount of casualties in modern warfare, but the introduction of new tactics and weaponry put those doctrines to a test that end up in the eventual defeat of the south.
Likewise, it is important to emphasize that before the beginning of the war, the South suffered from problems related to their lack of ways to maintain the surplus a war economy needed. Therefore, its problems were not also about the capacity of its commanders but to the supply issues the Confederate army suffered throughout the war. (Nolan, 1991). Besides, since the beginning of the war, the Union army did not seek to destroy the Confederate army, but to render it useless by cutting its supply lines and destroying the South industrial capabilities. That means that the North found less aggressive ways to end the confrontation and that the South needed bold victories to maintain its will to win. Hence, it is possible to say that the Federal victory in the Battle is a result of those aggressive tactics that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had employed with a great degree of success during the war.
For this reason, since the beginning of the battle, General Lee committed a series of tactical mistakes, the first being advancing on the Pennsylvanian countryside without sufficient intelligence and reconnaissance. Thus, without a reliable element of information gathering, General Lee was in the darkness. All he knew was that sooner or later, the Union army had to stop him (Gallagher, 1992). Conversely, the Union had extensive intelligence regarding the position and maneuvers of the Confederate’s Army units, allowing General Meade to set up a series of defensive positions near Gettysburg to stall the Confederates until reinforcements came to aid the rest of the Potomac Army. Moreover, General Lee’s aggressive tactics played a capital role in the eventual Confederate defeat. Knowing he had inferior equipment and manpower, as well as a lack of strong positions, Lee decided to launch a series of catastrophic attacks on Federal positions on Culp’s Hill. However, Lee’s swift commanding style should not be considered wrong, as many battles are won by rapid choices. Also, the first day of the battle seemed to prove his options. Hence, it was the Union retreat and ensuing battle planning what turned the tides toward a Federal victory.
The following day, General Lee wanted to take the same approach to combat, assaulting Meade’s higher ground and taking the hills surrounding Gettysburg to gain a tactical advantage and drive out the Federal army in total defeat. On the other hand, after the first retreat, the Union army reassembled and adopted a “fishhook” formation that covered the hills around Cemetery Ridge. The subsequent Confederate failure to take Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill the second day of the battle were the first mistakes in Lee’s plan that started with a full-blown offensive but after the initial success lacked the steam to continue pushing for the final victory. Nevertheless, given the substantial amount of losses among his army, General Lee had to conscript many inexperienced soldiers as well as rearranging his army’s officers with many inexperienced commanders, which also resulted from their lack of understanding of Lee’s aggressive commanding style that allowed his subordinates more room for independent tactics (Gallagher, 1994). This made Lee’s orders less efficient and allowed the Union forces to take advantage of that hesitance to reinforce their positions according to General Meade’s defensive strategy of keeping the high ground.
Last, arguably the worst mistake in the Battle of Gettysburg, the “Pickett’s Charge.” In said charge, the Confederate army had to cross 1,400 yards of no man’s land to fight a Federal force entrenched behind a low stone wall (Vossler, n.d). Also, attacking forces were poorly chosen as many of the troops who had undergone heavy fighting the past days ended up among the troops opted to take part in the assault. Incidentally, artillery support was also insufficient as the Southern batteries did not provide sufficient covering fire for the advancing men to reach their enemy with the lowest amount of casualties possible. Conversely, Meade’s position was to defend, and order the batteries to reply the Confederate fire, causing a sizeable number of deaths that resulted in the routing of many Confederate soldiers and turned Pickett’s advance into a military disaster.
To sum up, while Lee’s strategy was overtly offensive, Meade’s take was much more defensive. Both commanders’ tactics clashed and eventually Meade’s superior manpower, ammunition and positioning gave the Federal army the victory. Still, the Union’s victory was not decisive as both parties would want and General Lee’s army was capable of fighting for two more years, although it never fully recovered from the Battle’s Outcome. Effectively ceasing to be a threat to the Northern territories. Consequently, wars cannot be won only by strength or will, and adequate tactics must be used. If the Civil War is regarded as the first modern conflict, it is because it made evident the need for enough intelligence and reconnaissance of the enemy to assess their forces. Similarly, it fixed the idea of same tactics that adapt the decisions to the outcomes of the bouts instead of trying to fight the battles according to a fixed plan.
Gallagher, G.W. The Third Day at Gettysburg & Beyond. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1994. Print.
Gallagher, G.W. The First Day at Gettysburg Essays on Confederateand Union Leadership. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1992. Print.
Goss, T. “Gettysburg’s “Decisive Battle” Military Review (2004). Web. 7 Nov. 2015.
Nolan, A.T. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1991. Print.
Vossler, T. “The Opening Fight at Gettysburg: A Modern Military Analysis.” National Park Services History. National Park Services History. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.