A student of mine a few years back asked me one day in class while we were in the midst of our Civil War unit whether I thought the Battle of Gettysburg was overrated.
“Overrated?” I said out loud incredulously.
I could tell from the way he asked the question that he certainly felt the battle was overrated. I told him that I thought at a minimum the word ‘overrated’ was a poor word choice on his part when referring to Gettysburg. I also said that I did not feel the battle to be so but that I assumed that he in fact did.
“How could one of the largest battles of the Civil War be overrated?!” I said.
He responded that he felt Gettysburg’s unjustified significance in the annals of Civil War history is mostly because it is first in terms of the number of casualties of any battle during the war.
“Gettysburg is more than just casualty numbers and statistics.” I said.
He went on and maintained that the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg July 4, 1863 was militarily more important. That, the siege of Vicksburg split the Confederacy in two, gave the Union once and for all total control of the Mississippi River and produced a legitimate winner in Ulysses S. Grant that Lincoln recognized and rightfully moved east.
All of these reasons were true and made a compelling argument. After all, Vicksburg is a bit overshadowed by Gettysburg and does not get the same publicity and treatment. Yet there is good reason why Vicksburg is outshined by Gettysburg and it has nothing to do with the fact that at Gettysburg there were over 50,000 casualties. Gettysburg is truly unique because it perfectly showcases what Lee failed to so desperately achieve, an all-encompassing decisive victory.
The general sentiment is that the burden of pressure during the first few years of the Civil War was placed squarely on the Union and Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Lincoln is the only president that has ever had to deal with a crisis that pitted Americans killing their fellow Americans. Yet, Robert E. Lee and his overall strategy for his Army of Northern Virginia left very little room for error. By the summer of 1863 even though Lee’s army was riding high and the war was in its favor there existed a tremendous amount of pressure on him and the Confederacy.
For starters, by 1863 Lee and the Confederacy were desperate to get the war out of Virginia. Northern Virginia had been ravaged from the beginning starting with Bull Run. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign unsuccessfully pushed on Richmond via the James River in 1862. And although Lee repulsed the Union convincingly at Fredericksburg in December 1862, again at Chancellorsville in May of 1863 Fredericksburg marked the first time the full weight of the Army of the Potomac stepped foot into Spotsylvania County to wage war. Spotsylvania County up until that point had been virgin territory. This was to be the case no more for Spotsylvania County- like so many other counties throughout the South would discover as the war dragged on. Pressure now built on Lee and his army to get out of Virginia.
For a lesser commander this idea of getting out of Virginia may have been greeted with anxiety or trepidation, however for Lee it fit perfectly with his overall playbook on how the South would win the war- defeat the North in a decisive battle on Northern territory. Doing so would force peace talks to hopefully commence.
It should also be noted that Lee was an incredibly aggressive commander on the battlefield. Apparently it was said that he instructed his officers not necessarily through direct orders but rather through what I like to call “Lee-isms”, i.e. “if at all possible. . .”, which in Lee speak was a euphemism for “this is what I am commanding you to do.” In many respects Lee’s aggressiveness flew in the face of what many Confederate politicians believed to be the proper strategy for the South. Simply put, the Confederate strategy should be primarily defensive; protecting and defending what is already in their possession.
By the summer of 1863 Lee began his second invasion of the North and pushed into Pennsylvania. Lee upon entering Pennsylvania, even more so than his Antietam Campaign in September of 1862 had truly crossed the Rubicon. Maryland was at least a border state, while Pennsylvania was home to Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans in the Republican Party. With this in mind the Army of Northern Virginia needed to be at its best, Lee especially.
While in Pennsylvania and using the countryside to support his army Lee was unaware as to the specific location of Union forces leading up to the battle. Lee’s cavalry led by J.E.B. Stuart which primary function was to keep Lee abreast of Union troop movements was nowhere to be found. One could only imagine how unnerving this would have been for Lee especially once first contact was made on July 1st. Better intelligence would have perhaps at least allowed Lee to recognize that when the guns began to fire it was not a small, isolated Union detachment but in fact elements of the Army of the Potomac. Not having accurate intelligence and reconnaissance meant that Lee could not choose to fight on ground of his choosing. A constant stream of communication is always necessary in battle, even more so on enemy territory.
Yet all this being said regarding poor intelligence Lee’s Confederates were still successful at pushing Union forces through Gettysburg on the first day. A Confederate missed opportunity on the first day however allowed the Army of the Potomac to hold the high ground south of Gettysburg as fighting dwindled and more reinforcements on both sides poured into the battle.
On the second day of the battle Lee concentrated his forces on the Union flanks and although fighting was intense the Confederates were unable to push their will on the Union, which they had successfully done time and time before. It is here by the end of the second day that one could argue that the Battle of Gettysburg should have been a two-day rather than a three-day battle. Already taking significant casualties Lee had an opportunity to regroup his forces and fight on his own terms. But perhaps due to the fact that his army was so close at breaking through on the second day Lee could not see any other choice but to push the fight on third day at the one place his army had yet to properly hit- the Union center. His aggressiveness had caught up to him. The consequences were disastrous.
After close to two hours of artillery bombardment which had little effect, Pickett’s Charge failed to achieve its objective. The all-encompassing decisive Confederate victory on Northern soil was not to be. Lee’s army limped back to Virginia with well over 25,000 casualties, a statistical fact that the Army of Northern Virginia could never recover from for the rest of the war. Lee entered Pennsylvania with a force of 70,000, he then left with more than a 35% casualty rate. If pressure had not existed before Gettysburg on Lee and the Confederacy (it had!) it most certainly did from this point forward. Moreover, in less than a year Lee would be facing Ulysses S. Grant. Grant understood that the formula for victory meant to continually advance on the Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In the end, Lee would not be able to absorb the losses.
The Battle of Gettysburg exposed Lee’s aggressiveness especially on the battle’s third day. Furthermore, Lee’s failure in getting a victory with this second invasion of the North heightened pressure on his Army of Northern Virginia- an army that’s best days, unbeknownst at the time were gone for good. The Battle of Gettysburg was a lot of things, overrated it was not.