Saturday, July 28, 2012

McPherson on Lee & Longstreet at Gettysburg

On pages 77-86 of This Mighty Scourge, Perspectives on the Civil War, pages is the chapter "To Conquer a Peace? Lee's Goals in the Gettysburg" Campaign. In it James McPherson presents an explanation (argument) for what Lee intended in invading Pennsylvania. First of all he describes Lee's "after action account" which McPherson doesn't believe:

Lee describes 5 objectives of his invasion of Pennsylvania:

1) to draw the Union Army of the Potomac away from the Rappahannock River Line.
2) To take the initiative away from the enemy and disrupt any offensive plans General Joseph Hooker might have had for the rest of the summer.
3) To drive Union occupation forces out of Winchester and the lower Shenandoah Valley.
4) To draw Union forces away from other theaters to reinforce Hooker.
5) To take the armies out of war-ravaged Virginia and to provide the Army of Northern Virginia with food, forage, horses, and other supplies from the rich agricultural countryside of Pennsylvania.

McPherson comments that if these were indeed Lee's only objectives then he achieved all of them and the Battle of Gettysburg was a great success. [I wonder what the "Lost Cause" people do with Lee's goals.]

But McPherson doesn't believe Lee. Lee read in Northern newspapers that the Union Command at Antietam had access to Lee's Special Orders No. 191; which solved the mystery of how McClellan had moved more aggressively than Lee anticipated. So Lee's low impression of Union leadership returned. Antietam was just a fluke. The Pennsylvania invasion was a guaranteed success.

McPherson then develops the argument that Lee "might have made," and perhaps did make to Davis. McPherson refers to a letter Lee sent his wife saying "if successful this hear, next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong that the next administration will go in on that basis.' Here indeed [McPherson writes] was a bold strategic vision. It was not limited to a mere raid to take the armies out of Virginia and obtain supplies."

McPherson also quotes General Isaac Trimble who "remembered" and wrote down 20 years after the fact the following words from Lee: "when they hear where we are, they will make forward marches . . . probably through Frederick, broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line and much demoralized, when they come into Pennsylvania. I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises, before they can concentrate, create a panic and virtually destroy the army. . . the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence."

McPherson quotes the Richmond Examiner from early July to say "The present movement of General Lee will be of infinite value as disclosing the easy susceptibility of the North to invasion. Not even the Chinese are less prepared by previous habits of life and education for martial resistance than the Yankees. We can carry our armies far into the enemy's country, exacting peace by blows leveled at his vitals."

So Lee went ahead even though he had no word from Jeb Stuart, the Union Army wasn't where he thought it was, and Hooker no longer led it. Davis on Lee's promise sent vice president Alexander Stephens to Lincoln to be on hand to accept Lincoln's capitulation. Lee could not fail, and since he could not he had to use up huge numbers of his soldiers in order to make his promise come true.

In regard to Longstreet, McPherson writes, "Lee won over Davis and Seddon. Most interesting of all, he won over Longstreet, who now agreed with Lee than an invasion of Pennsylvania offered the best opportunity 'either to destroy the Yankees or bring them to terms,' as Longstreet wrote to Senator Lois Wigfall of Texas on May 13. If the defensive-minded Longstreet could talk like this, it seems even more likely that the offensive-minded Lee went north looking for that Confederate Austerlitz of Jena-Auerstadt. Longstreet later claimed he had extracted a promise from Lee that he could maneuver in such a way as to fight only on the tactical defensive in Pennsylvania. As Stephen Sears comments, however, 'that of course was nonsense.' Lee might have been willing to fight on the tactical defensive if he could do so on ground under conditions that gave him the opportunity to win the kind of victory he felt had eluded him at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville -- but he certainly could not have made such a binding promise to Longstreet. And almost everything Lee said or did in Pennsylvania indicated that he had always meant to keep the initiative by attacking."

McPherson's thesis can't afford for Longstreet to be telling the truth; so Longstreet's recollection becomes "nonsense," however modern linguistic theory has demonstrated that communication is exceedingly difficult and complex. Longstreet because of his presuppositions may very well have believed Lee gave him a promise. Lee on the other hand being the diplomatic fellow that he was may have couched his words in such a way as to make Longstreet happy without hamstringing his ability to maneuver and do what needed to be done once the battle started. These positions don't need to be one way or the other. Both can be true.

The same sort of thing would describe the disparity between Lee's "after action" account and the comments he made to Davis, Seddon and Trimble prior to the battle. Lee would have had all those things in mind. He was a flexible commander and surely would have considered all the possibilities including what he would salvage if he didn't succeed in an all-out military victory.

Why wouldn't he have described all the possibilities to Lee and Seddon? When do any of us describe all the possibilities about anything we plan? Or perhaps he put these goals in such a light as to make them seem hardly worth mentioning. We don't need to consider Lee a liar if he emphasized his 'best-case" scenario to Davis, Seddon and General Isaac Trimble but in his after-battle report described something considerably more modest. We don't operate on the simplistic level of having one plan and only one plan for a complex activity. We have multiple goals and plans. We develop a list of pros and cons. And there is seldom an occasion for presenting all of one's thoughts regarding these pros and cons to anyone, and there will never be just one "pro."

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