Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Countdown to Gettysburg: June 28th 1863 -- Lee Advanced to Gettysburg on the Word of a Spy

Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.

                                                    --Colonel William Calvin Oates, 15th Alabama Infantry 

  One of the great rewards of writing non-fiction is that the process forces a much deeper understanding of the subject at hand than one might otherwise achieve. The absence of JEB Stuart's cavalry as Lee marched into Pennsylvania has always been one of the most debated and contentious subjects of Civil War history. Lee in fact, in a rare post war commentary, stated that Stuart's refusal to obey instructions was the number one reason the Confederacy lost the Gettysburg campaign. Anyone who has studied Robert E. Lee and the facts will know this was not a whitewashing of Lee's own failures. Paramount here is that if Stuart had stayed close to Lee's forces he would have been better informed as to his enemy's movements, but also the nature of the terrain before his own army possibly allowing him to choose the location of the engagement.

Robert E. Lee 1862 photo, illustrated by Ron Cole.

  What came to light while researching for my new book was how deeply this failure of Stuart was ingrained on the high command of the Confederate army even before the battle and in the contentious decades that followed. Two interesting quotes found their way into the new book:

The failure to crush the Federal army in Pennsylvania in 1863, in the opinion of almost all of the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, can be expressed in five words—the absence of the cavalry.

                                                                                                    —Major General Henry Heth

Stuart was on a useless, showy parade almost under the guns of the Washington
forts . . .

When he rejoined Lee it was with exhausted horses and half worn-out men in the closing hours of Gettysburg.

Had he been with Lee where would our commander have made his battle? Possibly, not on that unfavorable ground of Gettysburg. Lee with his personally weak opponent, and Stuart by him, could almost have chosen the spot where he would be sure to defeat the Union Army.

                                                                                                  —Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel

  General Heth had his own good reasons to assign blame on another officer since it was on his orders on July 1 that recklessly sent two brigades of his division into battle at Gettysburg in spite of Lee's wishes to avoid a fight. Yet it is interesting because it shows that this opinion was widely held among the other officers. 

  Sorrel's comment is truly inspired. In a few words he captures the strategic situation Lee faced as he entered Pennsylvania.  The location of the battlefield was as crucial as knowing the enemy's whereabouts as events surely proved. Sorrel's account is also interesting because he showed what a momentous decision was forced upon Lee a few nights before the battle when word of the Army of the Potomac's movements reached him by word of a spy, a man he had never met, vouched for only by General Longstreet.

 Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel

From Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War:

  On Sunday, June 28th Robert E. Lee arrived at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where the corps of Longstreet and A.P. Hill were encamped. He established headquarters in a quite grove called Messersmith’s Woods. Lieutenant William Owen, an artillery officer in Longstreet’s command, described the scene:

The general has little of the pomp and circumstance of war about his person. A Confederate flag marks the whereabouts of his headquarters, which are here in a little enclosure of some couple of acres of timber. There are about half a dozen tents and as many baggage wagons and ambulances. . . Lee was evidently annoyed at the absence of Stuart and the cavalry, and asked several officers, myself among the number, if we knew anything of the whereabouts of Stuart. The eyes and ears of the army are evidently missing and are greatly needed by the commander.

  That night a mysterious stranger was brought to Longstreet’s chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel: 

At night I was roused by a detail of the provost guard bringing up a suspicious prisoner. I knew him instantly; it was Harrison, the scout, filthy and ragged . . . He had come to ‘Report to the General, who was sure to be with the army,’ and truly his report was long and valuable.

  The Federal army had crossed the Potomac three days ago and was far into Maryland. Harrison knew the locations of five of the enemy’s seven army corps. Three were already at Frederick with two more marching north from Frederick toward South Mountain. He also brought news that General Meade had taken command of the army. This information was already twenty-four hours old.

  Lee had not heard from Stuart for three days now. Stuart had never before failed him. But even now Lee was unaware of Stuart’s location, and he had only the word of a paid spy on which to plan his next move. The time for action had come, though, and Lee did not hesitate. Sorrel noted: 

It was on this, the report of a single scout, in the absence of cavalry, that the army moved . . . [Lee] sent orders to bring Ewell immediately back from the North about Harrisburg, and join his left. Then he started A. P. Hill off at sunrise for Gettysburg, followed by Longstreet. The enemy was there, and there our General would strike him.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, BN.com and Indiebound.

 Henry T. Harrison in uniform, 1863.

The image of Harrison is sources from the website of his great grandson Bernie Becker:


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Daniel Skelly: A Young Gettysburg Hero Part Two

So wise so young, they say, do never live long.

                                                   ― William Shakespeare, Richard III

Daniel Skelly was an 18 year old clerk working at the Fahnestock Brothers dry goods store in Gettysburg in July, 1863. In our first post, Daniel explained that rumors of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania were rife in the weeks before the battle. On June 30th, he witnessed the arrival of General John Buford's two brigades of Union cavalry and thought the town and its people would surely be safe from Lee's army. Little did he know that two entire Confederate corps were converging on Gettysburg the following day. Units of the Union's First Corps were encamped just eight miles east of Gettysburg with orders to advance to the town by morning. The world was about to explode on July 1st.

Daniel Skelly

What did this all mean to an excitable eighteen year-old boy?  The chance to see a real battle! And where better than to see a battle than where the battle was happening? The morning of July 1st Daniel and a friend ran toward the Union lines to see what they could see... From Daniel's memoir:

I went directly across the fields to Seminary Ridge . . . just where the old railroad cut through it. The ridge was full of men and boys from town, all eager to witness a brush with the Confederates and not dreaming of the terrible conflict that was to occur on that day and not having the slightest conception
of the proximity of the two armies. 

I climbed up a good-sized oak tree so as to have a good view of the ridge west and northwest of us, where the two brigades of cavalry were then being placed. We could then hear distinctly the skirmish fire in the vicinity of Marsh Creek, about three miles from our position and could tell that it was approaching nearer and nearer as our skirmishers fell back slowly toward the town contesting every inch of ground. We could see clearly on the ridge . . . the formation of the line of battle of Buford’s Cavalry, which had dismounted, some of the men taking charge of the horses and the others forming a line of battle, acting as infantry.

Nearer and nearer came the skirmish line as it fell back before the advancing Confederates, until at last the line on the ridge beyond became engaged. Soon the artillery opened fire and shot and shell began to fly over our heads, one of them passing dangerously near the top of the tree I was on. There was a general stampede toward town and I quickly slipped down from my perch and joined the retreat to the rear of our gallant men and boys . . . a cannon ball struck the earth about fifteen or twenty feet from me, scattering the ground somewhat about me and quickening my pace considerably.

.... to be continued.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, BN.com and Indiebound.