This posting has been kicking around in the back of my mind for over a year, and (for reasons that will become clear) it has been difficult to pull together.
I recently discovered the New York Historical Society’s podcasts on the civil war, and have been working my way through all of them. In the past, my interest in the civil war has never been that great; like WWI and WWII I mostly ignored it as a badly-run mess, generally lacking in brilliance or glory. That’s painting it with a very broad brush, indeed, I know. The podcast is a mix of different views and has had some really interesting speakers – up until I ran into what I can only describe as a “Robert E. Lee hagiography” by Michael Korda. [nyh] I’d heard that such things existed as part of the “lost cause” argument but I had never been slammed so hard in the face by one. Korda actually refers to Lee as a “warrior saint” – things like that. It was all good fun but it made me re-think my desire to re-visit the battle of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg is a couple hours’ drive from my front porch; I’ve been there once and didn’t like it much. The town is crawling with re-enactors and propaganda that simultaneously says “this was a horrible great battle” and “it was awkwardly self-inflicted.” There are still a lot of apple orchards in the area, and one year I attended a lovely apple harvest festival involving a lot of rum and fresh cider. Gettysburg is surprisingly small, which reminded me a lot of the battle field at Waterloo – the military action was constrained by the troops’ inability to maneuver past eachother. Like at Waterloo, there were geographical features that became nodes around which the battle was fought: a lot of dying was done over places that ought to have been insignificant and bypassed in a battle of maneuver.
I’ve re-fought Gettysburgh dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. When I was in 7th grade (I think it was) one of my fathers’ colleagues introduced me to wargaming, the afternoon he sat his sons and myself down with Avalon Hill’s board-game version of the battle. I was fascinated and immediately hooked and I’ve been a strategy gamer ever since. Professor Forster wasn’t trying to do that – he was trying to illustrate something important about how battles evolve, which is one of the main and best conceits of Avalon Hill’s game: the units are scheduled to arrive on the game-board at more or less the same time and place as the historical units did.
My original thought, a year+ ago, was to walk through the evolution of the actual battle, and deconstruct it to show that Lee was hardly a military genius. But, as I tried to frame that discussion into a narrative, I realized that as soon as you throw a counter-factual into a battle, the whole battle may change.
At the time when Heth’s troops moved toward Gettysburg, Lee’s army of Nothern Virginia was making a northward hooking maneuver around Washington, DC, masking its move by staying on the other side of a steep ridge and allowing his cavalry to screen off Meade’s main force, which was along the Potomac river. Depending on how you want to analyze it, Lee was trying to threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and northern Washington – forcing the union to try to cover all its bases and allowing him to strike where he thought they were weakest. Another view of what was going on was that Lee’s force had been living off the land (i.e.: looting food and supplies from the locals) which meant that they were leaving a vast swath of depleted farms behind them – they didn’t have a supply line and had to keep moving into new territory because if they hunkered down they would immediately be besieged and lose the entire force. Both views are probably accurate: the south was going to lose a war of attrition and Lee had to make dramatic moves because if he stood still he was going to be picked to pieces.
At the opening stages of Gettysburg, Lee’s forces were comparable in size to the union forces in the area. The lost cause narrative depends on the simultaneous argument that:
- Southern troops were worth much more than a comparable weight of union troops because of southern morale and skill at arms
- Lee was often outnumbered and did remarkably well with numerically inferior forces
Well, was Lee a military genius or were the southern troops simply better? Rather obviously, they weren’t – at Gettysburg Lee managed to lose pretty conclusively in spite of his alleged genius and the alleged superiority of his forces. [Forces: Army of the Potomac ~100,000, Army of Northern Virginia ~70,000] The hagiographies of Lee describe him as incredibly brave and composed on the battlefield, but I read it as most likely that he was old and tired and had decided he didn’t care if he survived the experience.
Listening to the podcast about how great Lee was, I kept trying to square his alleged brilliance with leading his entire army into a trap of his own devising. Then, there were two aspects of Gettysburg that started me thinking “What would Napoleon Bonaparte have done?” Bonaparte was extremely used to fighting inferior numbers against much larger forces and winning, and he understood logistics and supply better than pretty much anyone since Caesar which is why his failure in Russia was so shocking. As I said, I’ve replayed Gettsyburg many times and I started wondering if I could possibly walk through the battle, using the Avalon Hill game, and try to give a sense of what it might have gone like, had Napoleon Bonaparte and a few of his officers been commanding Lee’s forces.
I started to drift in and out of sleep, then, and my brain began serving up tidbits.
The grand battery had been hammering the union troops since the sun came up. When they heard the snaredrums beating the pas de charge and the cavalry came out of the smoke, they broke and ran before they could even see the serried lines of infantry marching toward them with their bayoneted rifles still on their shoulders.
The technological differences between civil war weaponry and Napoleonics was great, but the tactics with which the battle was fought would have been immediately familiar to Napoleon. Alexander or Caesar would have needed a few weeks to study the new way of war, but Napoleon and his marshals would have been able to drop into command of Lee’s army and immediately begin deploying it effectively. And, I think, vastly more effectively than Lee. That’s where I started to have a problem with the entire idea of attempting a Napoleonic re-fight of Gettysburg: unless Napoleon was having one of his epic “off days” he simply could not have fought Gettysburg as badly as Lee did. Even if he was having an “off day” his subordinates included the finest commanders of the time – basically every military genius in Europe except Wellington worked for Napoleon. If we were talking about “Marshal Davout at Gettysburg” the entire battle would be a footnote in history, reading, “Davout smashed some union forces attempting to screen the main avenue of attack against Washington once Bonaparte had cut around the Potomac.”
Marbot clattered into the presence of The Emperor, “Sire! My chasseurs are driving them before us like a flock of geese!” Ney grinned tiredly while Napoleon stared moodily into the fire, saying nothing. After a long pause, he nodded, “Good.” He walked over to the map and locked eyes with Ney, then made a few flicking motions at the paper, directing Ney to move his corps to widen the wedge in the union forces. “Tell Davout to march them into the swamp at Anacostia. I will cross into the city with my Guard.” Marbot saluted, whirled and jammed his hat on as he left, followed by Ney.
Lee’s supply situation was not critical; it constrained his maneuvers somewhat compared to the union forces, who were sitting on their own supply trains at the time. What was critical was Lee’s inexplicable incompetence in terms of battlefield awareness. During the Napoleonic wars, as well as the US Civil war, battlefield awareness and communication was of paramount importance. Napoleon had what amounted to a general order for his subordinates to “march toward the sound of the guns.” When his commanders heard a great fight brewing, they knew to orient on it and their tactical genius was largely a matter of figuring out what was happening quickly, deciding where they fit in, and doing the right thing. That would be immediately familiar to a civil war commander – after all, they learned to operate that way thanks to the history of the Napoleonic wars! Since there weren’t battlefield radios and telegraph was a relatively new thing [*] a Civil war army depended, like a Napoleonic one, on its cavalry scouts.
As Gettysburg was preparing to happen, union forces encountered Lee’s cavalry screen on the Shenandoah and there was a small battle that resulted in the rebels being driven away. These were the cavalry of the famous Jeb Stuart, whose military acumen – so far as I can tell – consisted mostly of being white, having a great beard and looking good. Napoleon also had a few of those sort of commanders in his cavalry, but he left the important scouting and goose-driving to consummate professionals like Marbot, Desaix, Lannes, and Lasalle. [You may notice I left Murat off that list] the job of light cavalry was to maintain contact with hostile forces, report their size and movements, and collect chickens and wine or stronger alcohol whenever they encountered it. Stuart, who I believe is unjustly famous, managed to chase off after some union supply units (good loot!) and basically stopped doing his job right before the big battle at Gettysburg.
The tall bearskin busbies of Napoleon’s guard loomed out of the mist veiling the potomac, and the rolling snare drums and screaming flutes blared out The First Consul’s Victory at Marengo March to set the time. Light cavalry were patrolling the area like an upset anthill, but the formed-up intensity of the grenadiers of the guard was what held everyone’s eye.
The southern force structure allowed something like Stuart dropping off the grid the all-important day before a major battle – because every day may be “the day before a major battle” you don’t go haring off and lose contact with the enemy, and you don’t stop scouting ahead of your line of march. I can’t hypothesize how Gettysburg might have gone under Napoleon because the leading elements would have had scouts out and his strategic awareness would have been much higher. Another issue is that Lee allowed his forces to commit to the battle at Gettysburg in the form of little piece-packets dribbling in over the course of three days. I’ve don’t know how much you’ve read about the battles of the Napoleonic wars, but believe me – Napoleon simply didn’t fight that way. That’s why I realized it’s impossible to ask “how would Napoleon have fought Gettysburg?” because, either there would have been no battle at all, or the union would have run full up against a grand battery of artillery behind a huge light cavalry screen, and disciplined masses of infantry ready to orient themselves for the key moment in the battle, to crush and smash anything before them, leaving the cavalry to cut up what remains. Napoleon’s warfare approach was to assemble his forces into a mass that he could drop like Thor’s hammer when and where he willed it to land. Little packets of troops was for chumps.
Napoleonic warfare was about the art of combined arms – a sort of “rock, paper, scissors” of relentless logic. If you encountered enemy infantry in the open, you’d send cavalry at their flank. If they managed to get into a square formation before the cavalry blew them to pieces, then you call the cavalry back and send the skirmishers up until the artillery arrives to harrow the poor bastards in the square with cannon balls. If they break, the cavalry cut them to pieces. If they stand, the artillery slaughters them. They can’t maneuver because it’s more or less impossible to march a square. What hit me, as I started thinking about this, is that the Civil war battles have combined arms, but use them mostly incompetently. The reason that Napoleon won so many battles was because of brilliant use of combined arms, and the French army simply knew that they had to move faster than the other guys. It’s way outside of the scope of this posting, but if you want a better understanding of what I mean, study how Austerlitz was fought, and contemplate what would have happened to the union forces at Gettysburg had been on the receiving end of that sort of treatment. Lee, the great holy warrior genius, couldn’t manage a fraction of the organizational, logistical, and communications prowess of Napoleon. And, at that point, I suppose I could stop.
Reviewing all this stuff made me remember why I didn’t take the Civil war very seriously. It simply made no sense. It’s a truism of military historians to say something like, “they were using Napoleonic tactics with modern weapons, so it was a pointless slaughter.” But that’s not true! They were using childish, incompetent tactics, having formed blocks of troops running all over the place, with a general lack of combined arms – the salient characteristic of the Napoleonic wars – so it was a pointless slaughter.” Military historians have spilled a great deal of ink over Pickett’s charge at the end of the battle – whether it would have worked or not had it been done sooner, or harder, or whatever – but either side using Napoleonic war tactics would have fought that very differently indeed. In fact, there was a fairly similar moment at Waterloo, when Marshal Ney took the French cavalry into repeated charges against British infantry in square – forgetting for the moment in his despair that you simply don’t do that unless you want to be a statistic. Generous military historians say that Ney was probably suffering from PTSD from the Russia campaign and that he was a mere shadow of his former self. Whatever they say, most of us would argue that Ney lost the battle when he threw the French cavalry away; it was a foregone conclusion from then. [**] The same applies to Pickett’s charge, and the rest is history. People who re-fight Waterloo using cardboard counters on paper maps, as I have, do not launch Drouet D’Erlon’s corps straight up the hill in column, nor do they fail to deploy the French grand battery where it would decimate the charge of the Scot’s Greys (which was a brilliant sacrifice-move to stop D’Erlon’s mistake) That’s why I remember Gettysburg as a great big “WTF?” and rapidly consign Lee to nonentity status.
Marbot swirled past a dejected-looking fellow with a glorious beard wearing confederate grays. He did not even slow down. As he mounted up, and tsk’d Lisette into a trot, he yelled over his shoulder to his Lieutenant, “who was that fellow? He looked like he had just been yelled at by The Emperor!”
“Yes, that was Stuart, the man you replaced.”
“Ha!” Marbot did not look back. Lisette covered ground like a swallow, as she always did.
That’s the summary: Lee didn’t use his battlefield intelligence well, because he didn’t have any – and his choice to make important maneuvers against an unknown force structure led him to throw his army into a meat-grinder in little chunks. That was a fairly typical Civil war battle, really – there were lots of meat-grinders and a great deal of incompetent maneuvering.I’ll end with one final plea for Lee’s warrior-sainthood. When Kusunoki Masahige realized that he had doomed his entire clan by supporting the failed military takeover by Emperor Go-Daigo, he led his troops into what he knew was going to be a losing battle, anyway. Before he left, he prayed at a local temple, and carved a poem into the door with an arrowhead, where it is still readable today. [The Kusunoki were famous archers] Was this foolhardiness, or military glory? When the Kusunoki clan fell and was wiped out to a man, it was considered an act of bravery and fealty, not a pointless slaughter. I think we can say the same for Pickett’s men, who ought to have realized they were being led into history as one of the great pointless-but-glorious events in the history of toxic masculinity. We shouldn’t revere Lee for his competence or bravery – it was cowardice that made him take one last throw of the dice at his men’s expense. He was already in over his head, losing a battle that he should have won.
Obligatory Julius Caesar caveat: we have mostly Caesar’s word for how awesome Caesar was. Salt liberally. Even if you put a ton of salt on Caesar, he was still awesome. Caesar was like that.
[* One of Napoleon’s great innovations was a heliograph network that allowed dramatically faster communications within France. It wasn’t quite as good as telegraphs eventually became but I think Napoleon’s battlefield communications were definitely superior to Lee’s.]
[** The French throwing their cavalry away at resolutely standing British soldiers is, after all, a grand military tradition.]