What was Robert E. Lee's Real Plan on the Third Day of Gettysburg? | HistoryNet MENU

What was Robert E. Lee’s Real Plan on the Third Day of Gettysburg?

11/13/2014 • Ask Mr. History

What was Lee’s real plan on Day 3 at Gettysburg? It seems to me that having seen the futility of frontal assaults against an entrenched enemy (Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg) Lee must have had something more in mind than throwing 12,000 infantry across more than a mile of open ground in the face of the center of an entrenched Union force. He had to have known that he would lose a significant portion of that force before they ever got near the Union line, and what were the survivors to do once they reached the copse of trees? Face left and storm Cemetery Hill? Meet up with the remnants of Ewell’s Corps?  Was Stuart’s cavalry supposed to attack the Union line from the rear? Lee’s after-action statement “the plan remained the same” (referring to the previous day’s fight) tells us very little. What is your take?

George K. DeHaven

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Dear Mr. DeHaven,

It is all well and good for people with 151 years’ worth of hindsight to ask what Robert E. Lee was thinking on the third day of Gettysburg, but I believe he said it best himself afterward: “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”

Of course, if one used the logic of hindsight—or any sort of general strategic logic—one would ask why Lee pursued his attacks at Gettysburg after the first day. Why assault a larger army that holds the defensive advantage of the high ground when you are deep within enemy territory? Wouldn’t the best course under such circumstances be to disengage and draw the enemy army along until you can engage him on ground more to your advantage—as Lee actually did at Antietam the previous September (and still lost)? Lee’s answer hides a real answer—after all the sometimes suicidally rash strategies and tactics he’d employed and gotten away with (even after the disaster at Malvern Hill, Maj. Gen. George McClellan just resumed his retreat), Lee was believing the built-up hype and genuinely thought he was invincible. His ego would not permit him to disengage, and in any case Lee’s strategy in venturing north was not geared toward taking Washington, D.C., Baltimore or even Harrisburg—it was to rout and preferably destroy the Army of the Potomac, after which Washington just might be open to negotiation.

Why the assault up the middle on the third day? Hell, my own brother, no Civil War buff, formulated a perfectly logical answer during his first visit to the battlefield: having failed to drive in either flank, the middle seemed the best remaining bet. This required some wishful thinking on Lee’s part: the previous two days’ attacks would have drawn reinforcements to the flanks, in addition to which the Union III Corps had been  scattered in the Peach Orchard the previous day. To improve the odds, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would be renewing its efforts against the Union left and Cemetery and Culp’s hills, and Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry would create a demonstration in the Union rear that might draw off more troops. In theory, all so perfectly logical. In practice, all so wrong.

But above all, Lee had no more to go on than faulty intelligence on the enemy’s capabilities and dispositions, as well as of the newly appointed commander facing him and his own past history of success against seemingly impossible odds. What he lacked was 151 years’ worth of hindsight.

Sincerely,

 

Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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