Friday, July 05, 2013

Battles Long Ago: Gettysburg 1863

One hundred fifty years ago this Wednesday the sun set over a stretch of farmland south of the little town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. As you probably know, by that time on that day more than 7,000 Americans had lost their lives, and another 27,000 had been injured, ranging from gashes and broken limbs to the 4,000 or so who were already slowly dying from sepsis and peritonitis.

I wanted to talk a little about those three days; not in an attempt to provide any more information about the fighting itself - far too many authors, historians, and soldiers far more knowledgeable and literate than myself have already done that - but simply to add some of my own ideas and opinions.

As you can probably imagine, several of them are military in nature.

Perhaps the simplest, but the most central to my concept of Gettysburg the battle, is that I don't truly see it as "decisive"; certainly not the most decisive of the battles fought and lost by the rebellion that July - that would be Vicksburg, by the way.

I see Gettysburg as part of the larger central place of battle in the American Civil War: always extremely unlikely to ever be decisive because of a technical revolution that had not been followed by a tactical one.

I belive that the main reason for this was the critical inability of almost all of the American Civil War leaders, both northern and southern to appreciate that the widespread introduction of rifling and ballistic projectiles (the "Minie' ball") had changed warfare in a way that would remain the rule until the advent of the tank and the aircraft. Simply, that defense was now much stronger than attack - so much that attacking a well-positioned enemy was courting disaster.

In 1840 most infantrymen were armed with almost the same smoothbore musket their grandfathers had carried in 1775.

Twenty years later most infantrymen (along with most cavalry in the form of carbines) carried a muzzleloading rifle with a percussion cap firing mechanism. Slow to load, heavy, not all that accurate...but several orders of magnitude more accurate than the quasi-Brown-Bess it replaced. It lengthened the lethal range of an infantryman literally ten times; from 50 yards to about 500, and could hit large massed targets out to as much as 1,000 yards.

This meant two big changes in battlefield calculus:

First, it meant that unless someone quickly realized that this vastly increased lethality meant that infantrymen would have to operate in vastly less concentrated formations that the result would be carnage for troops in the open. That any time two organized groups of infantrymen in close order collided that they would tear each other apart from far beyond handstroke range. That merely advancing to contact in formation over open terrain would be so prohibitively expensive to the attacker that even if the attacker could stand the butcher's bill by the time he got near enough to pour accurate fire into and break the defender he would be in no condition to exploit his success.

Second, it meant that as a battlefield arm cavalry was deader'n shit. The immense target presented by a man and horse combined with the tremendous distance required to close the range to pistol-shot and saber-stroke and the perforce-smaller number of mounted troops capable of fitting into about the same amount of space as a rank of guys on foot meant that any cavalry charge against formed troops was dead before arrival. I can't recall a single Civil War engagement where the cavalry of either side encountered formed infantry with anything like a decent field of fire and charged them. Against rifled firearms it was just suicide.

So, not surprisingly, there are no Civil War equivalents of Marengo, or Ulm, or Waterloo (which is what the mid-Victorian officers on both sides studied and expected to duplicate).

With tactical formations, artillery, and cavalry little different from those used by Napoleon and his enemies but infantry firearms much, much improved the result was to make it almost as bloody and crippling to defeat an enemy as to be defeated. And without a fast-moving pursuit force there was no real way to harry and rout the loser, either. So almost every defeat is recoverable. U.S. forces fight again another day after Bull Run and Chancellorsville and the rebels soldier on after Antietam and Gettysburg.

The key would be not battlefield success but economic devastation. That victory would inevitably go to the side that had more stuff and could use it more effectively - which mean, barring a miracle, that the rebels were doomed from the outset.

This, in turn, leads to my conception of Bobby Lee as perhaps the saddest figure in military history before Isoroku Yamamoto.

Of all the guys responsible for the bloody mess that was battle in the Civil War Lee was perhaps the most responsible. Not in the sense of being "to blame", but in the sense that he really didn't "get it"; he kept banging away on the Napoleonic drum all the way up until the summer of 1863, when the losses from Chancellorsville and Gettysburg forced him to stop throwing his men's lives away on grand charges in the old style. He was fixated on the idea of battlefield victory at a time when those technical and tactical realities meant that the most likely battlefield outcome was a bloody draw against an enemy that had way more blood and treasure than his side could ever assemble.

The odd thing is that he seemed like he was going to be the first to catch on the fact that by 1861 a soldier in a trench with a rifled musket was pure-D murder to the guy walking towards him.

During the Seven Days a year earlier Marse Robert had been all over the guys to dig in and defend. It earned him the nickname "King of Spades" which he reportedly hated. He'd seen the gawdawful carnage at Fredricksburg in December of that same year, less than eight months earlier. He had no reason to have any sort of confidence in the sort of Napoleonic charges he ordered at Gettysburg.

But the message didn't seem to sink in.

Some of his subordinates "got it"; Longstreet, in particular, wanted to 86 the ridiculous Nappie battering against the hills southeast of town, keep the Yanks pinned and slip around them towards D.C. and force them to attack. Lee refused to consider it.

So instead we get three days of rebels beating themselves up against prepared positions, losing troops they couldn't afford to lose and couldn't replace in what would have been a futile attempt to destroy the Army of the Potomac, anyway.

What I see as Lee's problem was that as a generalissimo he was on par with the German General Staff of WW2; hell on wheels in the field, unable to see past the end of a musket off it.

The rebellion depended on a whole slew of things all going right that were unlikely to ever all go right. Even Yamamoto realized that he and the Imperial Navy could win all the tactical successes they wanted to in the first six months or a year but that the immense economic strength of the United States meant death and disaster in a long war.

Lee - as far as I know - never did, or if he did never even got to the von Rundstedt "Make peace, you fools!" moment with Jeff Davis & Co.. He was fixated on the Eastern Theatre when the real damage was being done in the West; it was Grant's perverse genius to realize that all that was needed in the East was bloody stalemate.

Throughout the last half of 1863 all the way to the spring of '65 Grant held Lee by the nose while Sherman in the south and west and Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley kicked him in the ass. By the time the lines around Petersburg fell there simply was no "Confederacy" in any sort of military sense; what little industry and much of the agriculture had been burned out or wrecked.

Lee's perverse genius, if you will, was to have been a competent enough battlefield commander to have kept his force together and fighting long enough to ensure that his enemies had the time and the impetus to utterly wreck the rebellious region he was supposed to be fighting for. The damage wrought to Georgia, the Valley and Tidewater and northeastern portions of Virginia, much of the Carolinas and Tennessee was ruinous; the South took generations to recover and in some ways still retains the scars of that harrowing.

A worse commander might have spared his people more by succeeding less.

I also think that it is often hard, given the kind of (to me, at least) almost insane courage needed to attack those U.S. positions those long summer days 150 years ago, to keep in mind that these men were fighting for one of the worst causes men have ever fought for. Regardless of what they themselves might have believed they were fighting for; "states right's" or "independence from tyranny" the hard bottom is that the single most fundamental "right" they were defending was the right to own another human being like a box of Cap'n Crunch, and the "tyranny" they were opposing was the tyranny of their government to deny them that "right".

They were, in simple fact if not in their own minds, betraying their country in the cause of Slavery.

And if that's not a hell of a bad cause I can't think of another worse outside of plain murder.

So while I have a certain respect for their individual bravery I can't but regret that it was put to such vile service, and I have a hard time understanding the need for a certain breed of Southern man to make an icon of the flags and symbols of that time. The southern part of the United States has produced many good and some great men and women, and has for many years given much of credit to the United States. To make the five years when she stood for a brutally unjust "peculiar institution" the centerpiece of what it means to be "southern" seems to me to dishonor the South more than it does her credit.

And, finally, Gettysburg reminds me of what a crude, brutal, and stupid thing war is as a means for settling human disputes.

The United States was created from a portion of the British Empire, and that empire included the enslavement of humans (originally any human - in the form of indentured servitude - but eventually only the darker-colored ones) by other humans. The peculiar institution was not engineered here, but inherited from Great Britain as Britain inherited it from still earlier human societies. Slavery was deeply entrenched in British colonial agriculture not only here but in her West Indian and Indian possessions.

But slavery was made illegal in Britain in 1833, and in all British possessions ten years later.

That's right. Seventeen years before the United States dissolved into a bloody welter of war over slavery that tore us up in ways we still feel today the damn redcoats simply passed a law and went about hucking the damn thing into history's trash bin where most living people agree it belonged long before.

Did that make, does that make, Britain some sort of racial paradise where dark and light-skinned people live in wonderful harmonious equality?

Hell, no.

But it does mean that the British succeeded in finding a way to settle their differences over slavery in a way that didn't involve killing millions, and the fact we couldn't makes us look pretty brutal and stupid, now, doesn't it?

That's really all I have. Next March I may write up the Battle of Glorieta Pass; it's just such a goofy oddity that in my current stage or writing up goofy oddities I can't resist it. But beyond that I don't really have anything more to say about the American Civil War; it simply seems a tragic and senseless business to me, and always will.


Leon said...

The problem with the new accurate rifles was that they're still using black powder which generates a crapload of white billowing smoke. One volley and you're looking at your own smoke screen.

That means after your first shot, aiming is going to be difficult. So the only way to score hits is to close to point blank range. Enter the high butcher's bill.

Once you get smokeless powder, than more modern tactics can be used.

Paul Bibeau said...


Excellent piece.

FDChief said...

Thing is, Leon, had they figured out that you basically break out into a skirmish line and shoot and move - which is what happens forty to fifty years later - then you get pretty much the same thing with half the carnage. Even within a decade most armies are fighting in "open order" - 3 to 5 feet between troopers - when engaged in firefights, closing up only when the enemy got within pistol shot.

There were a handful of commanders in the ACW that "got that", but the majority still thought in terms of the Napoleonic shoulder-to-shoulder firing line. That probably killed as many troopers as bad food and bad water combined.

Leon said...

The trouble with a skirmish line is its susceptible to a sudden charge by formed troops. Unless your skirmish line can put out a high rate of fire (not possible with rifled muskets) they're vulnerable. You might be able to get them to stand if you have entrenchments but they'd still be outnumbered by a close ordered column.

FDChief said...

Point taken. Still, in open order you could probably still get a pretty high concentration of fire without the vulnerability of the shoulder-to-shoulder line, and you could close up pretty quickly when the other guys got within 50-60 yards...

The thing that Lee missed that WAS critical was the ascendency of defense. Rifled-musket warfare made attacking a mug's game unless you were willing and able to pay the awful butcher's bill or your opponent was Austrian or French...

Barry said...

Leon: "Unless your skirmish line can put out a high rate of fire (not possible with rifled muskets) they're vulnerable."

The whole point of the Minie ball was that rifled muskets now had the same rate of fire as smoothbores. Infantry had the range of the formerly low-firing rifle with the rate of fire of the inaccurate smoothbore.

teo said...

"But it does mean that the British succeeded in finding a way to settle their differences over slavery in a way that didn't involve killing millions, and the fact we couldn't makes us look pretty brutal and stupid, now, doesn't it?"

In Britain the power of plantation owners was far weaker then in US. They did not have a saying.
The empire had many other areas with very cheap labor force.
Slave powered plantations had become a small economic segment of the Empire's aggregate economy. It was a very easy political decision to make.
Plus of course UK took over large areas in Africa. So it could use the African labor in Africa. Which it did of course.

FDChief said...

Still, the British DID find a way; they ended up paying a lot of money to the slaveowners, but even had the U.S. chosen to do that it can't have cost more than the Civil War did.

I'm not pretending that it would have been as "easy" as it was in Britain (and it wasn't easy - Britons were taking the issue up in Parliament as far back as the middle 1700s and winning court cases against slavery consistently in the early 1800s...but we could have tried it.

We didn't really even do that. Hell, you had loathsome decisions like Scott v. Sanford twenty years AFTER the Brits decided that the air of Great Britain was to wholesome to be breathed by slaves" and Plessy forty years after THAT.

I'm not saying that we're some sort of Evil Empire. But we really need to pinch ourselves before being all warm fuzzy about how much good we've done on the whole question of race here in the U.S...

teo said...

In Britain a very elitist olygarchy ruled. They could take the decisions they considered were optimal for the empire. Small individual interests were not a viable obstacle.
In US power was much more diffuse.
The Czar could do something similar as the British.
The power vertical allows this type of decisions to be taken relatively easy.

You can't have some sort of democracy , even of a limited type, and be able to take tough decisions which might benefit the collective.
Just compare how China and India evolved in the last decades.
Society is a very low efficiency system in my opinion. And until now all attempts to correct something led to much worse outcomes.
US is moving into a 19th century British direction but I seriously doubt US citizens will see it as progress. I could observe this in your posts.
It means you get to be ruled by your betters however they see fit.