Confederate Chances at Gettysburg

As we approach the 151st anniversary of the most famous battle of the American Civil War, I ask a few simple questions:

1. Did the Confederates have a chance to win a significant if not decisive victory at Gettysburg?
2. If so, when was their best chance during the battle to win that sort of victory?

45 thoughts on “Confederate Chances at Gettysburg

  1. wgdavis June 30, 2014 / 5:26 pm

    Yes, a slight chance, at the end of the first day. Had he pulled back to South Mountain and dug in, even an eventual marginal defeat there could have been significant enough threat that Northern newpaper editors and the public in general would have pushed for a negotiation. Indeed, it may have forestalled Lincoln from running for a second term if the Northern editors turned against him en mass.

  2. Rob Baker June 30, 2014 / 5:52 pm

    I don’t think so. Had Lee moved to the Mountains between Gettysburg and PA to dig in, Meade likely would have moved South of that position to cut Lee’s supply lines. This puts the Confederates in a position where they would have had to forage or continue to move South to counter, which forces them off the mountains.

    • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 9:15 am

      You assume that:

      1. Lee has not blocked the passes over South Mountain. Several Brigades at each of the gaps could have held superior forces at bay, and kept Lee’s supply line open.
      2. That Lincoln would have allowed any action by Meade other than to pry Lee off the mountain. And the Northern newpaper editors would have had a hissy fit if Meade did not attack. Indeed, Lincoln might have replaced Meade with Hancock. [Or Howard if Howard thought he deserved it! 😎 ]

      • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 9:26 am

        And do not forget that Stuart would be free to reconnect with Lee directly instead of a ride to Carlisle to get into the Cumberland Valley to connect with Lee.

      • Rob Baker July 1, 2014 / 10:47 am

        The further Lee has to spread to block passes, the weaker his lines are. Regardless, moving South forces him to block those passes, which begins to effectively move him from the mountains.

        However, this is somewhat moot. Geographically, Lee would have had to march hard and fast south and then east in order to put his army in between the AoP and Washington. With the Union controlling the high ground, the geography forces Lee to funnel towards Emmitsburg. The truth is, when Lee’s men cross the mtns. from Chambersburg, they lost their shield. Any step back in that direction would have been a strategic retreat.

  3. Tony June 30, 2014 / 6:58 pm

    A good chance if they could have know what they were facing on Day 1. Which raises a question … could Heth have consolidated all of his division’s escort companies into a cavalry force to probe the federal flanks / rear a la the XVII corps at Raymond?

    The Confederates were much more concentrated on their end of the battlefield … if they had known what was headed their way, Heth could have shifted towards Oak Hill as he advanced. The units arriving behind him would have slammed into the federal left, Ewell would have slammed into the federal right. The Confederates would not have been spent at the close of Day 1 and could have pushed for Cemetary Hill … hindsight 20/20 and all that.

    • Tony July 1, 2014 / 4:34 am

      Eh …. I guess you can’t really do without your HQ escorts with that much union cavalry in the area.

  4. Al Mackey June 30, 2014 / 7:35 pm

    Yes. On July 2. The confederates came close to breaking the Union line a number of times. Delay some troops’ arrivals or Rodes makes a more aggressive move toward Cemetery Hill and the confederates take Cemetery Hill and force the Federals to retreat.

    • Charles Lovejoy July 1, 2014 / 7:39 pm

      I agree with Al’s assessment. The lines did come close to breaking several times and it a very realistic possibility they could have gave way. If even one live broke it could have had a major affect on the battles outcome.

  5. jfepperson June 30, 2014 / 8:34 pm

    I agree with Al—modest changes in the events of July 2nd could have produced the kind of victory you speak of.

    • Dennis July 1, 2014 / 1:18 pm

      Which battle could you not make changes in and turn the outcome?

      I think the question is based on the facts as they are, not what ifs. The troops arrived when they did as ordered not by chance. Rhodes is no given to take Cemetery Hill nor does any breakthrough guarantee Federal retreat.
      If Meade makes mistakes, he would lose, but as Lee said he would not make mistakes. Meade played the hand and won.

      • Al Mackey July 2, 2014 / 8:28 pm

        The question was whether or not the confederates had a chance to win. The answer is yes. How could it happen? With a subtle change, such as Rodes attacking Cemetery Hill more aggressively on July 2. The question is a what-if. If we want to look at what happened, then we’re stuck with exactly what happened. In other words, it’s a foregone conclusion, which is incorrect.

        • Dennis July 4, 2014 / 11:16 am

          The factual results are incorrect? I think I see the context you want to place this in,but like a what if question, a what if rationale is tenuous in its foundation. Like most time travel stories get tangled up after a few chapters, what ifs lose footing after a couple of responses.

          In this case the subtle changes suggested ignore the myriad of alternative reactions to each change – all of which were heavily stacked in the Union ‘s favor – and assume an outcome based on the action only.

          These are actually the kind of mental justifications that Lee relied on and they led to disaster.

          As I said, it is a what if and we could apply it to any battle. At Gburg, there were more reasons why it ended up the way it did than a few changes could make the outcome different.

          I could be wrong, but we will never know.

          • Al Mackey July 4, 2014 / 5:00 pm

            It is incorrect to assume that what happened was foreordained to happen and inevitable.

            What I propose is a minimal change to the original timeline, which severely limits alternative reactions, meaning there are far fewer than “myriad” alternatives.

          • Dennis July 5, 2014 / 7:38 am

            Hi,
            As I said, I could be wrong.

            Take Care

            Dennis

  6. Tony July 1, 2014 / 4:32 am

    The question is, though, so what? Lee wins a costly victory to gain a minor crossroad town? What next?

    • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 9:23 am

      Agreed. Though that costly victory only sets into action the Pipe Creek plan, and Lee would NOT have the forces, supplies, or ammunition to go to battle there, keeping in mind all the while that Lee sought that one major victory that decisively defeats/destroys the AoP. Lee cannot win a battle that decisively if he attacks, he must switch to the defensive and invite an attack as Longstreet argued.
      It was in short, the most fundamental decision Lee would make at Gettysburg and he made the wrong one.

      • Charles Lovejoy July 1, 2014 / 7:42 pm

        Would have been a victory outside Virginia for Lee. Could have ended up a major political victory for Lee and the Confederacy
        .

        • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 11:07 pm

          Very true and what Lee was shooting for…[pun intended].

        • John Foskett July 2, 2014 / 6:54 am

          Vicksburg. Not to mention a battered ANV hunkered down in Yankee territory. The Feds had additional troops to call on (not to mention the largest corps in the A of the P, pretty much untouched) and a supply line. Lee had neither.

    • Al Mackey July 2, 2014 / 8:32 pm

      What next do you need? Meade has to retreat to Maryland and the world sees that Lincoln can’t protect Pennsylvania from an invading force. What’s the political cost of that to Lincoln? Coming as it does in July, it affects the fall elections in 1863, leading to Republican losses. It possibly even affects the 1864 Presidential election. As to what Lee does next, he can take Harrisburg, a major capital of a Northern state. He can then go past Harrisburg and set the coal fields on fire. This disrupts the coal supply to the Federal Navy. What does that do to the blockade?

      • John Foskett July 3, 2014 / 6:53 am

        Lots of assumptions here. Lee suffered significant losses on July 1 and even more significant losses on July 2. Meade could still call on his largest, and virtually unused, corps and plenty of other federal troops in the area. He has a supply line. Lee doesn’t. It’s early July, not October. And Vicksburg has fallen. I respectfully think that you’re ignoring several factors that would have been in play. Add in the fact that Lincoln didn’t exactly go roaring into October with the unmitigated disaster at Chickamauga and a perceived stalemate in Virginia.

        • Al Mackey July 3, 2014 / 5:27 pm

          If Meade loses Cemetery Hill, he has to retreat because Cemetery Hill dominates the battlefield. It also leads to loss of his supply lines, both Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. Cemetery Hill is the key terrain.

          • John Foskett July 4, 2014 / 8:29 am

            True, but I’m not referring to Meade’s supply lines at Gettysburg. I’m assuming he pulls off of Cemetery Hill and takes up another position. I’m referring to the situation post-battle. Lee’s army has been off on a raid for a good 3 weeks. At some point that (including supply and logistics) and his extensive, unreplenished losses take their toll. I’ll rest on my points.

          • Al Mackey July 4, 2014 / 4:57 pm

            In my scenario he doesn’t need the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, so that ammunition is not used up, and he doesn’t sustain the July 3 losses. He has enough food available to him, and he will get more as he moves further through Pennsylvania.

          • John Foskett July 5, 2014 / 8:53 am

            In my posts I’m assuming that he “wins” the battle on July 2, not July 3. Lee suffered significant losses on July 1 and July 2, including officers. Correspondingly, Meade had a large, thus-far unused weapon in the VI Corps, and could call on thousands of additional troops from the region. You seem to assume that Lee could simply stay in Pennsylvania and move around freely for well beyond the three weeks he’d already been there. Keep in mind that part of his mission was to procure foodstuffs for Virginia. That required a southerly-oriented supply line, as well. The Yankees weren’t going to simply sit around and let him picnic in Pennsylvania. The longer one hangs out on enemy turf, the harder it becomes to find lunch. There would be another battle. As for the political side, let’s not forget Vicksburg.

          • Al Mackey July 5, 2014 / 4:52 pm

            Meade’s plan was to retreat to Pipe Creek in the event of a defeat. That’s what he would have done. He didn’t use the VI Corps to counterattack after repulsing Pickett’s Charge, so I fail to see that after being defeated at Gettysburg he would suddenly decide to use the VI Corps in an aggressive manner. Lee wanted to subsist his army in Northern territory. That’s what he would continue to do. Additionally, taking a Northern state capital, no matter how temporarily, is a huge win. Proving Lincoln can’t protect Pennsylvania is far more important than Vicksburg. Vicksburg by this time is nothing but a symbol. He can send a corps off to coal country to set the mines on fire, which would be devastating to the Navy. That done, the corps returns to Harrisburg. In the meantime, if the AotP tries to come after him, he can oppose their crossing, probably leading to another defeat and retreat. Lee stays until farmers in Virginia have a chance to bring in a harvest, then he returns.

      • wgdavis July 3, 2014 / 5:24 pm

        Set the coal fields on fire? Do you mean the coal mines? In Scranton and Wilkes Barre? Even today it takes a few hours to get there by car on superhighways from Harrisburg!. And he would be how far overextended? The longer he stays on the offensive in Pennsylvania the longer the Union has to gather troops to oppose him on ground of their choosing. Such folly would be the end of the Army of Northern Virginia. If Lee moves across the Susquehanna, a large force could be dispatched from North Carolina to move up the Peninsula to Richmond almost unimpeded.

        • John Foskett July 4, 2014 / 8:34 am

          Excellent points. I’m reminded of the “double somersault” quote attributed to Grant at the Wilderness when some of his officers were wringing their hands about Lee’s next move. Lee was an accomplished soldier but he wasn’t multiplying loaves and fishes. He would have had a significantly damaged army after July 2 which was in a vulnerable logistical and tactical situation.

  7. Lee Elder July 1, 2014 / 5:52 am

    A significant victory, yes.
    By 1863, this was as much a PR war as it was anything else. By thumping the Union army in a Northern state, Lee would have generated headlines and could have stirred up fears among the Northern populace. That was his goal for the drive into Pennsylvania, along with getting the war away from the Virginia farmers for a while.
    A decisive victory? No.
    The Union army still had more resources than the Confeds did and would have eventually worn Lee’s army down. We have to remember, too, that Vicksburg fell regardless of what happened at Gettysburg. Lincoln was steadfast in prosecuting the war. Even had he lost the election of 1864, Lincoln would have remained President through the end of the year and shortly into 1865.
    My view: Even with a victory at Gettysburg, the Confederates could not have won the war.
    Lee Elder

  8. Lee Elder July 1, 2014 / 7:55 am

    I forgot the second half of the question above, about when the best chance was for the Confederates to win at Gettysburg: Their best chance to win was to win the race to Little Round Top.

    The classic answer is that they lost the battle by not attacking Culp’s Hill on the afternoon of the first day, but Lee did not have the right people in place to make a serious attack on the first day and I do not think the Confederates would have taken the Hill with the forces/commanders they had in position.

    Lee Elder

  9. Lyle Smith July 1, 2014 / 10:51 am

    The Confederates didn’t have a chance to win at all, I think. They stumbled into the Army of the Potomac, didn’t know the ground they were fighting on, and weren’t organized and informed well enough to take advantages of what advantages they did have.

    • Charles Lovejoy July 1, 2014 / 7:48 pm

      I don’t agree, I think if the Confederacy could have pulled it off. they came close a few times to breaking several union lines. I liked Al’s post, several times the union lines did come close to breaking. If just one line broke in would of had a major impact to the battles outcome.

      • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 11:12 pm

        But they didn’t. and that is the fault in that line of thinking…the ANV certainly did their best to break those lines, but they didn’t and the Army of the Potomac had an awful lot to do with that fact. I think it is doing a disservice to the troops to think that a little more effort here and there would have/could have made the difference…and do we think that additional effort, if available, would not be met by an equally different effort on the part of the AoP?

      • Lyle Smith July 3, 2014 / 6:29 am

        Yeah, I’m with wgdavis on this. The Confederates appear to come close, but not really. Where there were penetrations of the Union line or out right smashings of it, the AOP had reserves to hold to line or mind the gaps. And the Confederates weren’t really prepared to exploit any breaks in the line that they made.

        Also, saying the Confederates had a chance at Gettysburg on the 2nd day is like saying the Federals had a chance against Jackson’s part of the line at Fredericksburg. Neither side on defense was going to just fold those days.

        I do think the Confederates could have possibly won a decisive battle during the campaign, but Gettysburg as it happened couldn’t have been it, I think.

  10. hankc9174 July 1, 2014 / 4:48 pm

    were their *any* significant or decisive confederate victories during the war? I can think of some demoralizing ones but not others…

    • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 11:16 pm

      Closest I can think of are First Bull Run [with immediate follow up], Fredericksburg, and Chickamauga. But in each case the opportunity to crush the Union forces was lost in a failure to follow up after the severe defeat of the enemy, especially surprising in Lee after Fredericksburg, not so surprising in J. E. Johnston and Braxton Bragg.

      • wgdavis July 1, 2014 / 11:18 pm

        I don’t believe Lee had a hope in the world of winning Gettysburg even marginally after the first day.

    • Lee Elder July 2, 2014 / 8:35 am

      Well, since the Confederates lost the war, they obviously did not enjoy any decisive victories. But they won plenty of significant battles. The first Bulls Run ‘signified’ that the war would be a longer struggle than many people in the North expected. How many Confederate victories ‘signified’ that it was time for Lincoln to find a new commander of the Army of the Potomac? Certainly Chickamauga ‘signified’ that it was time to change commanders of the Army of the Cumberland.
      Thus, with all due respect, I believe there were significant Confederate wins. There just weren’t enough to win the war.
      Lee Elder

      • hankc9174 July 2, 2014 / 5:19 pm

        Chattanooga is the closest the csa comes to a decisive victory.I’d consider ‘significant’ as leading to something bigger than union command change – something more tangible need occur: loss of the Mississippi, capture of an army, etc. The war of attrition the south has to fight does not lend itself to victories in space – only in time. in this way, the overland campaign lends itself to as much significance as any single southern victory…

        • Lee Elder July 3, 2014 / 5:43 am

          I guess it comes down to how you define the term ‘significant’ and we disagree. Maybe we’ll agree another time.
          Lee Elder

        • wgdavis July 3, 2014 / 5:33 pm

          Chickamauga/Chattanooga certainly caused a change in command of the Army of the Cumberland, yet the Confederates also came close to changing their own commander!

  11. Joshism July 1, 2014 / 8:39 pm

    Best chance to win: July 1st. No, not Ewell at Cemetery or Culp’s Hills. Earlier in the day. Lee held back much of the day not knowing what was in front of him and reluctant to bring on a general engagement without info or all of his army. If he realizes that he both outflanks and outnumbers the Yankees he possibly crushes both Union corps. Also, I think an earlier and/or slightly adjusted attack by Longstreet on July 2nd also has a better chance at unhinging the Union left.

    However, in either case I don’t think it could be a decisive victory. A bigger rout of the I and XI Corps on July 1 just means the Battle of Gettysburg is a one day battle and a larger confrontation remains to be fought at Pipe Creek or elsewhere. Meade definitely becomes defensive, but still has plenty of troops to continue the fight. On July 2nd I think the AotP still manages to slip away overnight.

  12. Craig Cellitti July 2, 2014 / 6:48 am

    Yes, too many what-if’s. What if Sickles hadn’t moved off Little Round Top and Longstreet had to fight his way over that uneven ground against the Third Corps in a defensive position with the Fifth behind him. Longstreet’s approach would probably been under the fire of the Third Corps artillery. Plus Lee had enough artillery ammunition for one major battle. The way the situation stood on the afternoon of July 2, the only thing that would have saved Lee would have been a lack of determination by Union troops. Unfortunately for Lee, that was not in short supply.

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