Copyright John T. Reed 2014
I am somewhat fascinated by military operations. As a boy it was just liking the uniforms, weapons, and the sergeants and officers barking commands and the bravery—war-movie stuff.
Then, in high school I fell in love with the idea of going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which I managed to get admitted to. At that point, my view of the military became bifurcated into the Hollywood tactics and strategy stuff and the day-to-day reality of the military which is primarily just another federal government bureaucracy—most definitely NOT the stuff they make war movies about. Indeed, Hollywood generally lies by omission with regard to the bureaucracy of the military because the reality of it is such a non-box-office bummer. By that lying, Hollywood defrauds teenage boys like my former self into enlisting or entering officer programs like ROTC or West Point. Twenty of my West Point classmates ended up dead in Vietnam for no reason considering that we lost that war. I came close to being the 21st a couple of times there. Had I known the truth about the Army, I probably would not have gone to Vietnam.
But along the way, I never lost my fascination with the actual stuff the military is supposed to be about, tactics, strategy, training, weapons, military history.
In a couple of months, I am going back east on a trip. During that trip, one of my West Point classmates and I are going to visit Gettysburg. I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia and rural Delaware and have driven on the Pennsylvania Turnpike many times. Gettysburg is about 125 miles from where I lived in DE; about 30 miles south of the PA Turnpike; and about 100 miles west of Philadelphia. So I am familiar with the climate, vegetation, and terrain in that area. One of the surprising things I learned at West Point and in Army Ranger School and Vietnam is the crucial military importance of vegetation and terrain. Climate can also be crucial in less moderate parts of the world.
Whenever I get involved in any project, I like to research it. I have done that with regard to the Gettysburg visit. I have read several books about it and watched several movies and TV documentaries about it. This article is about a bunch of interesting things I was not previously aware of.
• Suicidal—These guys, the soldiers and officers of the Civil War on both sides, were nuts. They were behaving in suicidal ways apparently based on some romantic notions of patriotic bravery. They would march in parade formations right at enemy riflemen and cannons firing from protected positions. Indeed, the parade formations and close-order-drill maneuvers we marched in at West Point were first invented as military tactics in the 18th and 19th centuries. Using them in the absence of the enemy—in a parade—was like a football team practicing its plays “against air” to use the coaching phrase.
Bill Cosby has a comedy routine where he said,
Suppose way back in history if you had a referee before every war, and the guy called the toss. Let’s go to the Revolutionary War.
[Referee speaking] "British call heads. It’s tails. What do you do, settlers? . . . Settlers say that during the war they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere. Says your team must wear red and march in a straight line.
They were still doing that red-coat idiocy in the Civil War 87 years later. At Gettysburg, it was mostly Confederates walking in straight lines and the Union guys were generally behind the rocks and trees. But both sides did that insane walking into guns fired by guys who could see them from hundreds of yards away and who were protected behind trees, rocks, and stone walls.
• Officers out front—The officers were even worse. They would walk or ride horses in front of the charging troops while wearing uniforms that made it clear they were officers and while behaving in ways that made it crystal clear to both their subordinates and enemy snipers that they were the colonels and generals in charge. Predictably, they probably had the highest casualty rates of any ranks.
What a stark contrast with World War II and later! In my web article on military medals, I complained bitterly about the bravery-medals-to-purple-heart-medals ratio by rank in the U.S. Army. In other words, the majors and higher ranks get an amazing number of bravery medals considering they rarely get a purple heart. Petraeus, for example, had a bronze star with a V device for valor. Apparently he got it when he was a major general. How many major generals do you figure are getting purple hearts when they are major generals. Petraeus never got a purple heart. (He did get shot accidentally by a U.S. soldier with an M-16 and almost died, but that was while watching a live-fire training exercise in the U.S. He should have gotten a medal for colossal stupidity for that.)
But in the Civil War, the colonels and generals truly led from the front, and they got wounded and killed in great numbers.
Was that smart and advisable? Hell, no! That sort of stuff by a colonel or general is some sort of adolescent showing off or proving oneself. A top officer is like a top NFL QB. Their getting injured dramatically decreases the effectiveness of the offense. Same at Gettysburg. All these top officers who were excellent at their jobs got themselves killed or wounded and command devolved to far less competent officers and the performance of the units diminished dramatically. Yet they continued to behave like teenagers who were insecure about their manhood.
They had it about right in World War II. The officers generally did not wear their rank insignia in battle to avoid attracting sniper fire. Lieutenants and captains got wounded a lot. If they are brave, they should get bravery medals. The higher ranks ought not be that far forward. Their job is to coordinate hundreds of men, not lead a squad up a hill. They also ought to stop giving each other bravery medals. Their chance to earn bravery medals came when they were company-grade officers. Once they are majors and above, any bravery medal they won should be regarded with great suspicion.
There is a statue of an infantryman at Fort Benning, the Infantry branch headquarters. It has the caption “Follow me” on it and the statue is using his arm to give the same message. Should all officers do that? No. Just lieutenants and captains and sergeants.
Basically, a platoon leader needs to be with his platoon, which is 40 guys and the back of 40 guys is not very far back. Ditto a company commander (120 guys). But a battalion commander lieutenant colonel (400 guys) cannot lead all of them with his personal presence and voice. So he needs to be somewhat farther back telling the company commanders to move and take positions on the battlefield and all that.
• Stonewall Jackson—Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, Commander of 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virgina , was probably Lee’s favorite subordinate. Both Lee and Jackson are fellow West Point alumni of mine. At West Point, the general we studied the most was Napoleon Bonaparte. The general we studied second most, if I recall correctly, was Jackson. Wikipedia says,
Military historians consider Jackson to be one of the most gifted tactical commanders in U.S. history
The public mainly only knows him because he had a funny nickname and they probably are not sure which side he was on during the Civil War.
Was Jackson commanding at Gettysburg? No. He was dead. The various books I read about Gettysburg all seem to want to give the impression he died in battle. Nope. The idiot was wandering around the the dark near Confederate pickets and one of them thought he must be a Yankee and shot him. His arm was amputated—amputations seemed to be the main medical procedure of the Civil War—and he became infected while recuperating and he died—probably one of the main causes of deaths of Civil War soldiers.
Another West Pointer—Mickey Marcus—was also shot by a friendly picket at night during Israel’s fight for independence. A movie called Cast A Giant Shadow was made about him.
The first time I was shot at in Vietnam was initiated by a rocket attack at night. We had no battle stations the way they do in the Navy. We should have and I told the battalion commander that. Anyway, after the initial explosion, there was lots of small arms ammo going off which sounded like a ground attack on our perimeter. I figured at first that I should go the the perimeter where we had 24-hour manned bunkers. On second thought, I figured me running in the dark with a rifle in my hand toward a bunch of scared-to-death, teenaged, American soldiers with loaded guns was probably a good way to get myself shot. Instead, I went to my platoon’s building on the theory that my platoon needed to protect our radios’s ability to send message—like “Help!” In the event, the rocket had apparently hit an ammo dump and the “small arms fire” was actually just small arms ammo going off in the resulting fire. I am still glad that I did not run toward those bunkers in the dark. At that point, we generally thought the small arms sounds were a ground attack.
Stonewall Jackson was a bit of a nut and had poor performance days in the Seven Days Battles. His greatest hits were the Valley Campaign, Chancellorsville, the two Bull Run battles, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
• Trusting subordinates who were not trustworthy—It sounds like Lee was spoiled by Stonewall Jackson. Apparently Jackson was a phenomenal commander when not getting himself killed by his own pickets. Lee could just give Jackson general guidance and he would do great. But Lee did the same with almost all his other commanders—most of whom needed more detailed orders and most of whom needed to be monitored closely to make sure that they were doing what they were supposed to.
The Union commander at Gettysburg—Meade—was everywhere, seeing, ordering, correcting, fixing, cursing, yelling. He never lost his cool. It was all exactly what was needed at the time and place. Lee, in contrast, was a near silent spectator—fine if all your commanders are Jackson’s, but disastrous when they are far less than Jackson’s. (My wife is related to Meade. She is also a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence—Francis Lewis—and related to the Cornell family that founded Cornell University. Big-time DAR preppy.)
Lee also had a sort of “It’s in God’s hands now” fatalism and sort of went off duty during the battle. A famous song title of World War II captured the proper balance: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” An actual chaplain had apparently said the title sentence during an attack where he concluded that he would be of more help passing than praying and started passing. Lee praised the Lord but expected the Lord to also take care of passing the ammunition. If he had seen the need, Meade would have been ferrying ammo with his own horse if he could not get others to do it.
Many commanders on both sides were incompetent. That is the commander’s fault. Although not Meade’s fault because he only had the job for three days when Gettysburg started.
More astonishing, many were also insubordinate. Lee was almost ignored by most of his commanders. But he was too much the quiet gentleman to say or do what was necessary to correct the problem. And he also had a habit of issuing vague orders that allowed great latitude for subordinate interpretation. The Union had fewer insubordinate officers, mainly a corps commander who came not from West Point but from the House of Representatives: Dan Sickles. His claim to fame was he was the first person to ever used the temporary insanity defense which got him found innocent after he shot his wife’s lover dead. Meade not only gave clearer orders, but he was constantly riding all around making sure they were followed and instantly fixing it when they were not. He was too slow to see that Sickles was way too far forward, and it was too late to correct when he did see it. Sickles’ Third Army Corps was obliterated and Sickles himself lost a leg.
But even the officers who followed orders on the Union side often misunderstood or discovered some bit of terrain or opportunity to attack they figured was so wonderful that it overrode the orders. The main problem seemed to be that the insubordinate officers did not have a big-picture understanding. Units must remain connected to each other laterally so gaps do not open. Also, time schedules must be adhered to so coordinated attacks had maximum effect. Meade was extremely big on constantly telling his subordinates the big picture—nightly meetings with all of them. Lee, on the other hand, was secretive and guarded, apparently from having been burned politically early in his career. He apparently became one of those guys who figures he will fare better image-wise by saying as little as possible about anything.
I have met lot of those people and have contempt for them. A friend is someone who knows all about you and still likes you. People who refuse to let anyone know all about them, therefore, can never have any true friends, although they may get lots of votes or have a high Q rating to use the Hollywood measure. What kind of sick puppy prefers the admiration of distant strangers who do not know them to true friends?
We see the effect of insubordination in football coaching. Blocks must be on time—not too early and not too late. Passes and pass routes must have split-second timing, same with hand-offs and laterals. I often had to tell some stud offensive lineman that it was great he could shove the defender in front of him 10 feet backward, except that his departure from the offensive line opened a hole in it by forcing his neighbor teammates on either side of his starting point to protect a wider area than they were capable of protecting. Same in the Confederate charge on the final day of the battle. Everyone has to stay on schedule and be where they were ordered to be and stay connected to the brother unit on either side of them. They too often operated as if they were independent units and suffered the same problem that is so big in football: getting flanked, that is, the enemy getting around the side of you.
• West Point grads—There were a zillion West Point grads in the Civil War on both side—Lee, Grant, Meade, Jefferson Davis, Jackson, Longstreet, Sherman. And they were all over the place at Gettysburg. I knew that. But I had never focused on the size of the classes back then. When I graduated in 1968, my class had 706 guys. George Pickett and George Custer, but graduated last in their class at West Point, and both fought at Gettysburg. But you could also say that Pickett graduated 59th in his Class of 1846 and Custer was 34th in his Class of June 1861.
People who did not graduate from West Point find the extremely close friendships between West Pointers on both sides of the Civil War almost treasonous. Officers would send greetings and wine bottles and baby gifts to opposing classmates under a flag of truce before battles.
But folks, West Point was five years long back then; four starting with Custer’s class. It was also 12 months a year except for the summer before junior year. (11 months a year when I was there.) You’re talking 24/7 for four or five years being roommates, standing at reveille together every day, marching in parades, going to class, double dating, eating three meals a day together, summer training in tents together, and far more. The wonder in not that they were so friendly toward the enemy but that they fought each other at all. Right after Appomattox, the West Pointers were crossing to the other side to have a drink with their recently enemy classmates.
My cadet company for three years at West Point, C-2, had about 32 guys when we were freshmen. That is about the size of Custer’s whole class! The idea of going to war against half my companymate-classmates—like my best friend/roommate in 1964-5, Dan Kaufman who was from Georgia and later became dean of West Point, is beyond my comprehension. During my time on this trip that will include Gettysburg, we will be having a meal with another C-2 companymate named Roy who lives in the DC area. He is from Mississippi. Like in the Civil War he and my Minnesota companymate with whom I am staying and I would have been trying to kill each other!? Give me a break!
The West Pointers at Gettysburg seemed to generally do quite well on the Union side. The Confederate West Pointers like Lee and Longstreet and Pickett did not do so well. Anyone questioning the value of West Point back then would have been shut up by their performance in the Civil War. Nowadays, however, I question the value of my alma mater. Too many guys going to grad school to get PhDs in international relations (Petraeus) and not enough studying drone use and rules of engagement. Douglas MacArthur told the cadets at West Point in his 1962 farewell address, “Your job is to win our wars.” (Audio version of that speech—MacArthur’s portion starts at 6:18 into the recording.) The Civil War West Pointers knew that. All the West Pointers after the place began in 1802 knew that until Korea—MacArthur’s last command from which he was fired for his “There is no substitute for victory” position on how the war should be conducted. We have not won a war since. West Point today is more about diversity and grad school than winning wars. Straighten it out or shut it down.
• Lawyers—I think more of the Civil War officers—and many of the West Pointers—were lawyers than West Pointers. The typical bio was go to Yale or Harvard or Princeton, become a lawyer, Civil War starts and they enter the Army on one side or the other as colonels!
Lawyer apparently had a different meaning back then. There were relatively few law schools. President Lincoln was a lawyer, but he only had one year of formal education in his whole life! I don’t think you were licensed by the state or had to pass the bar exam. Being a lawyer seemed to mean you were smart, studious, not a physical laborer, perhaps formally educated in liberal arts, then you “read the law” and declared yourself to be a lawyer. In short, you were a leading, respectable, “works with his brain not his hands” citizen. I get the impression there were darned few ambulance chasers back then. When the war began, the lawyers turned into colonels. When it ended, if they survived, they turned back into lawyers, and politicians.
• Politicians—There was also a sort of churning between politics, lawyering, and being a colonel or general in the war. Lots of colonels and generals on both sides were former and/or future politicians.
• West Pointers got out of the Army—A whole lot of the West Pointers did what I did—graduated, served in the Army for a few years, then got out. When the Civil War started, they went back in. I was asked to be a reserve officer after I got out. I checked the “No freaking way!” box on their reply form.
• State units and Regular Army—Most Army units in the Civil War seem to be residents of one state like the 20th Maine or the 24th Michigan or the 10th Alabama. These numbers were designations of regiments. This sort of is like the national guard today. The Civil War also had Regular Army units. When I graduated from West Point, we all got Regular Army commissions. That was a big deal. We could not be RIFfed (although many of my classmates were after the Vietnam war ended), or demoted absent misconduct. The Regular Army units were what might be called professional soldiers today. An RA unit could and probably did have guys from every state. These state regiments typically were all guys from that state and the people of that state resented it being commanded by people not from the state, which was a problem because although every state provided troops, they did not all have good colonels and generals to offer. Thus did guys who were good politicians but not good commanders get command jobs often, especially in the North. The state units in the Civil War seemed to have had more pride and espirit de corps than units had when I was in the Army. When I was in the Army, we had state national guard units serving with us at times but they could not have espirit de corps because they were simply quite inept compared to us full active-duty guys.
• Many different versions of what happened—There is no solid history of what happened in the Civil War the way there has been in more recent wars. For example, the story presented in the book The Killer Angels and the movie based on the book, Gettysburg, is sort of the Longstreet version of the southern side and the Meade and Chamberlain version of the Union side. After the war, the veterans apparently wore the 19th century equivalent of t-shirts saying, “The older I get, the more important I and my unit were back in the Civil War and the less important those other guys were no matter what they say.”
It sounds like the battlefield is overrun with monuments to every regiment and big shot and sometimes there are two monuments on the spot where X happened because two different warring story tellers say it happened at different spots. They were unable to shoot the movie Gettysburg at the actual battlefield because of monuments, graves, and modern encroachments as well as some fields having changed into woods and vice versa. They had to film it on a farm some miles west of the actual battlefield.
To a great extent, no one knows what happened in the Battle of Gettysburg because there are arguments between and among the sides about almost every part of it.
• Terrain and vegetation—As I said above, terrain and vegetation are overriding issues in combat. For example, the U.S. lost in Vietnam, mostly mountainous jungle, after a more than 10-year war, but we won in Kuwait Operation Desert Storm (the First Gulf War) which was desert, in just 100 hours. See what I mean?
The Yankees had the high ground at Gettysburg and thus did the smaller Union force (in most of the sub battles) win. There were other factors like better artillerymen, being on defense, interior lines, more ammo, etc. But the high ground seemed to be a decisive advantage.
• Confederate hubris—The South thought they were better soldiers and better human beings and had a better cause. They did win most early battles even though outnumbered. And they were surprisingly good soldiers in general considering their lousy weapons, uniforms, lack of shoes, and all that. True, some Northern units were consistently lousy. But the plain fact was many Union units were also excellent. And the top Union commanders seemed to outnumber the surviving Confederates when the Battle of Gettysburg started and when it ended. Meade was better than Lee.
Even after the battle, the South talked of nothing but which one or two of “our generals let down our country and our troops.” The thought never occurred to them that the better team won or that the North had the best top commander that day. I am not sure the South has yet figured out that they got beat by the mass of better Union soldiers and commanders, not betrayed by a few bad Southerners. All through the battle, the Confederates kept hurling themselves at Union units and positions where objectivity would say they equal or exceed our number so maybe we’d better think about a better approach here. Or they would recognize that the Yankees had the high ground but since they were only Yankees and we are Rebs will just run up there and take the heights.
After the war, one Confederate veteran of Gettysburg was asked how the South could have lost that battle. “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it,” was his answer. Apparently, he was the only one in the South able to see that and willing to voice such heresy.
• Be a skirmisher, sharpshooter, or cavalryman—If you wanted to avoid getting killed in the Civil War, you would want to be a skirmisher, sharpshooter, or cavalryman. Each had markedly lower casualty rates than the infantry. Skirmishers were just those guys Bill Cosby spoke about who fired at the enemy from behind trees and rocks and skittered away when large groups of enemy approached. Sharpshooters were sort of today’s snipers only they were snipers lite. Modern snipers operate in two-man teams. Sharpshooters operated in squad- and platoon-size units. They were better-than-average marksman who could kill from greater distances. Cavalry occasionally charged into each other at full speed like kickoff and kick return teams. But even those actions seemed to produce fewer casualties than the infantry advances in the open. One non-cavalry general called the cavalry a “humbug” in a book I read. More show than go.
How so? I once expressed great admiration to my oldest son Dan for his returning kickoffs in high school and the Ivy League. He said, “No one every got a good hit on me when I was returning a kick.” His job was to elude them if he could, which he usually could, and put his shoulder down and explode into them when he could not. He only had to do that about once or twice a season when he was running up the sideline.
Similarly, although the cavalrymen may want to give the impression that they are insane, kamikaze warriors, their horses had more sense. Police horses that are used for crowd control won’t step on pedestrians. It’s hard to fire accurately from horseback. Damned near impossible to reload a muzzle-loader on horseback so Civil War cavalrymen had revolvers or Spencer repeating rifles or Henry repeating rifles. All of those firearms fired a smaller bullet than a Civil War infantry rifle. And they were also big on sabers which caused some gruesome wounds but often could not reach the enemy in the swirling on-horseback melee. Custer’s initial fame came from his leading full speed cavalry charges at Gettysburg. (He famously commanded the 7th Cavalry. My New Cadet company the summer I entered West Point was 7th New Cadet company in July and August 1964. Our company commander said we were the first U.S. Army unit since the Little Big Horn to have a guidon with a 7 on it. West Point cadets are active duty U.S. Army soldiers. Why did the classes at West Point before us not have a guidon with a7 on it? Because we were the first Baby Boomer class and the first class big enough to have seven new cadet companies. Custer is buried at West Point.)
And you cannot win the Battle of Gettysburg with skirmishers, sharpshooters, and cavalry alone. Their purpose is to scout and slow the advancing infantry. But the battle back then was won or lost by infantry and artillery. Today’s fascination with special operations forces like the SEALs, rangers, and so on is essentially exalting the skirmishers, sharpshooters, and cavalry over the infantry and artillery.
You can dig a hole with a spoon or a back hoe. If you are setting a gopher trap, the spoon will work better. If you are installing a lawn sprinkler system, a back hoe is better. Only in the permanently-adolescent military would the spoon beat its chest and claim to be better than the back hoe. Special ops should be in the U.S. military tool kit, but they are rarely-used tools. The recent statement that we are going to be okay cutting the military budget because we are going to rely more on special ops troops is bull! If all the Union had against “Pickett’s Charge” were skirmishers, sharpshooters and cavalry, Pickett would have won.
• Telegraph?—The electrical telegraph was invented in 1837 along with Morse Code. It was well in use at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg (7/1-3/1863). But the armies were only using it to communicate with Washington, DC and such. I was a communications officer in the Army. If you could send me and my fellow Vietnam-era commo officers back in a time machine to Gettysburg, we would have immediately been running commo wire (for telegraphs) all over Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, and Little Round Top.
Did they back then? No. They used wig-wag flags from some high points like Little Round Top. The branch insignia of the signal corps has been two signal flags since 1868—three years after the Civil War. Did the flags work at Gettysburg? Somewhat. But they had disadvantages like they cannot be seen at night or if there is smoke or fog. Also, everyone can see them including the enemy. When Confederate General Longstreet was maneuvering to attack the Union left flank on the second day of the battle, they stopped their concealed march when they got to a point where they could see the Union signal men on Little Round Top, and vice versa, and took another route where the Union flag wavers could not see them. Had the Union lookouts been using a telegraph, they could have been on taller Big Round Top which was not used because it was wooded and flags there could not be seen, the Confederates would not have seen them and the Union would have had more time to shift forces around to meet the attack.
Telegraph works at all hours in all conditions and is much faster than flags. The main way commanders communicated with their subordinate units in the Civil War was horseback messengers which often failed to work in a timely manner or at all.
At Gettysburg, the electronic telegraph was 25-year old technology. So they had the technology, but it did not occur to them to use it on the battlefield. Morons! A better question is why it would be used anywhere else first.
• Night fighting—The Battle of Gettysburg shut down when it got dark. Too bad because there were perhaps some opportunities to exploit weak spots just before the sun went down. In Vietnam, the enemy liked to attack us at night. In Vietnam, if we had, say,a four-hour night fight, there would typically be flares falling under chutes the entire time. I did a lot of night training in the military. Never was involved in a night operation in Vietnam. Forget about night-vision goggles. All we had in Vietnam were Starlight scopes and infrared searchlights. They had no such in Gettysburg. Most of our training in ranger school involved night ambushes and night attacks. We had no night-vision technology there.
How do you move at night? If you can see the stars, you use the North Star. We also had Army compasses that had glow-in-the-dark faces and needles. And the patrol leader would consult a map periodically as we were moving by getting under a poncho to hide the light and using a flashlight to check the map. We moved in single file following the luminous tape on the back of the hat of the guy in front of you. We could have held onto a rope. Trust me, you can navigate and attack in the dark. It takes some getting used to.
At the Front Sight hand gun training school we had one night session. I warned my wife and her girlfriend that firing guns at night was a whole different experience because of the muzzle flashes. My wife normally partnered with her girlfriend. That night, for some reason, she was my partner. She tosses compliments about her husband around like manhole covers—that is, very rarely. But that night she said I, “looked like a superstar.” What’d I do? Nothing special. Just what the instructors said to do. But I guess she and all the others were freaked out by the dark and the startling explosions coming out of their pistols. I had been trained in night firing not only at ranger school but also at West Point and in the 82nd Airborne Division when I was a commo platoon leader in an infantry battalion. Like I said, it takes some getting used to, but it’s not that big of a deal. At Front Sight, unlike most of my military training, we were firing live ammo.
But the other thing we used in the Vietnam era were parachute flares. Did they have those in Gettysburg? Apparently not. Why not? Damned if I know. Francis Scott Key wrote about the“ rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air” in the War of 1812—fifty years before Gettysburg.
We had flash suppressors on our rifles in Vietnam, to make it harder for the enemy to see us. They had no such in Gettysburg meaning each discharge of a firearm lit up the battlefield big time. I read of no rockets at Gettysburg, but they did have bombs bursting in air. Actually, some cannonballs were like the bombs in cartoons: a sphere containing explosive with a burning fuse sticking out of it so it would explode in the air. According to the books I’ve read, most of the time at Gettysburg, all hell was breaking loose with simultaneous, continuous, rifle fire and cannon fire. Does that light up the battlefield enough to see? Yes.
A parachute flare is like a roman candle or nautical distress flare. It shoots up into the air about 200 feet, then pops deploying a tiny parachute with a burning flare suspended from it. It glows bright orange and swings under the chute giving a spooky, moving shadows light on the battlefield. The artillery also has star shells that contain bigger parachute flares. I could not find any good video of it online. They all point the camera at the flare which is just a light against a dark sky. You need to see how it lights up the ground. It burns until it hits the ground starting fires if it lands on dry cellulose (leaves, wood, dried grain crops, paper or cardboard). Gettysburg did not seem to be fire danger dry then, but the flares in the air are quite adequate without starting fires. Muzzle flashes from firearms and cannons and exploding cannon balls also typically start fires on the battlefield.
So on a battlefield at night, you get illumination from muzzle flashes, rockets, exploding artillery rounds, fires, grenades, and parachute flares. There is no need to refrain from fighting at night, although it is harder. In Ranger School, we were supposedly behind enemy lines like the Lone Survivor guys so we could not reveal our positions. But in a night special ops attack, the enemy usually is using lights because they figure no enemy is around. So you can navigate and shoot at the people and things illuminated by the enemy’s own fires and lights. In the Civil War, the enemy was so sure there would be no night fighting, you could see their thousands of campfires from miles away.
We had a session in the field at night our first month at West Point where they demonstrated that you could see the glow of a single burning cigarette from something like a mile away. When we were tactical—pretending to be in the field in the vicinity of the enemy, absolutely no light of any kind was ever allowed, period.
Moonlight also provides a whole lot of light when it is there—enough to fight by. The night of July 1, 1863, the end of the first day of the battle, there was moonlight for a long time. One account says it was rising as Lee and Longstreet were meeting that evening. So why weren’t they fighting? There was a full moon on July 1 that year, which means the moon was almost full every night. When it rose and set is another issue. I found these marks on the Internet for July 3, 1863, the final day of battle:
Sunrise: 4:48 AM
Moonset: 8:49 AM (waning gibbous phase)
Sunset: 7:35 PM
Moonrise: 9:24 PM
Militaries were shooting rockets in the War of 1812. Military rockets were first used in the 1200s!
Parachutes were invented in the 1470s. A flare is a form of brightly-burning, hard-to-blow-out candle. They were first used militarily in 1276!
So, as with telegraphy, the Civil War armies had all the technology they needed to produce the sort of parachute flares we had in World War II and Vietnam. They simply could not be bothered to put the three ingredients—rocket, parachute, and flare—together to assist in night fighting!
• Dehydration—In August 1963, I participated in two-a-day football practices at my high school. The coach believed in “water rationing,” that is, depriving us of much water in order to get us used to not needing it. On July 1, 1964, I entered West Point as a new cadet. It was stinking hot and humid. Every time I turned around that day, an upperclassman was asking me when the last time I had a drink of water was. If he did not like the answer, he ordered me to go get another. They almost always ordered me to get another.
Water rationing, as I was subjected to in August 1963 is nuts. It kills people. The medical profession realized that and denounced any deprivation of water—especially in hot humid conditions—in the early 1960s.
Unfortunately, in the early 1860s, and especially in July in Gettysburg, it was very hot and humid. The Battle of Gettysburg began 101 years to the day before I entered West Point, about 200 miles southwest of West Point. The weather at 2PM each day was:
July 1 76º cloudy
July 2 81º partly cloudy
July 3 87º (Pickett’s Charge)
I saw no mention of water rationing at Gettysburg, but I also saw too little effort to keep the soldiers hydrated. Time and again the books speak of how tired the Gettysburg soldiers were from marching and fighting in the heat. The authors are apparently not experienced soldiers, or football coaches. The problem for the soldiers at Gettysburg, especially for the Confederates who were attacking most of the time, was almost certainly more dehydration than fatigue. Fatigue is what football players get playing on a crisp Fall, “good football weather” day. What they get practicing or playing in August or on a hot humid September day is dehydration. If a fresh hydrated soldier or football player is a 10, a tired one is about a 7 and a dehydrated one is about a 3. I suspect many of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg died of heat stroke, not wounds. My football coaches in high school in 1963—100 years after the Battle of Gettysburg—and 125 miles due east of Gettysburg—did not understand dehydration and heat injuries, so I guess we can’t expect Civil War generals to do so either. Although, they certainly had seen soldiers die from heat stroke in the prior battles, all of which were fought farther south. And Southerners growing up in that climate before air-conditioning, certainly knew about the danger.
Anyway, the books about the Battle of Gettysburg ought to be full of references of the generals making heroic efforts to keep their men and horses plentifully supplied with water. There was plenty of it on the battlefield. Being on the low ground, the Confederates had Plum Run, Pitzers Run Willoughby Run, Stevens Run. Being on the high ground, but defending rather than attacking, the Union had access to Rock Creek, Spangler’s Spring, and some other streams, but they needed to get that water up to the ridges and hills on which they were positioned.
There is also great danger of the men getting sick from normal stream water which often contains giardia and harmful bacteria. Also, with around 100,000 soldiers and many horses and cattle (for food) camped in a confined area, there is a danger of the streams being polluted by human or livestock waste. I saw no mention of any such sickness, but neither did I see any mention of water purification. When the transcontinental railroad was built, the Irish workers going west often got sick from stream water. The Chinese workers going east never did. Why? They drank tea which had been first heated a.k.a. pasteurized.
Field sanitation and extreme efforts to get purified water to the troops should have been a prominent part of the books about the battle. I saw almost no mention of it.
• enemy below the lowest level at which the cannons can be depressed—In some Gettysburg battles, and presumably others during the Civil War elsewhere, they could not use the cannons against the enemy because they were below the lowest elevation of the cannon. I have no training in such issues, but let’s apply logic.
First, if the high ground is so wonderful militarily, then you need to be able to shoot downward from the high ground.
Secondly, it may be with muzzle-loading weapons—cannons and rifles—that pointing it down causes the ball or bullet to fall out. A muzzle-loading weapon is one where you push the bullet in from the end where it comes out when you fire it. If you can push it in, it can fall back out. With rifles, they stuff some paper in with it, that may be enough to hold the bullet in while the rifle is depressed. But holding a cannon ball in when the muzzle is pointed down would require some sort of contraption made of wood or some such.
Thirdly, if you have cannon ball that explodes after a certain period of time, and you are trying to hit enemy coming up the hill at you, who needs a cannon? Just light it and roll it off the hill. You could use an observer some distance away who could see the location of the enemy and the location of the explosion so you could adjust fire. Or in this case, adjust fuse length, so the subsequent shots would be closer.
Grenades are another weapon that they had the technology for, but did they again not think of the idea of a throwable bomb with a lit fuse? Here is the beginning of the Wikipedia entry for the word grenadier:
A grenadier (from French, derived from the word grenade) was originally a specialized soldier, first established as a distinct role in the mid-to-late 17th century, for the throwing of grenades and sometimes assault operations. At that time grenadiers were chosen from the strongest and largest soldiers.
The 17th century means the 1600s. So why are the guys on top of the hill not throwing grenades down on the bad guys coming up the hill? No mention of such in any book about Gettysburg. ???
Napalm—Against mass wave attacks like those used by the Confederates at Gettysburg U.S. soldiers in Vietnam would call in napalm which was dropped by jet planes. No jet planes at Gettysburg, but they could have had napalm. Napalm is just a flammable liquid combined with a thickener like gelatin. I remember making it in Vietnam—dump a box of gelatin powder into a five-gallon gas can and stir. Jello might have even worked. Gelatin, which is made from animal bones, has been around since ancient Egypt. Flammable liquids have been around since before the civil war. Kerosene, for example, was developed in 1846, 7 years before Gettysburg. They use to dump boiling oil and such on enemies trying to break into the castle. I sense that this would have seemed impolite during the Civil War, but that is the war in which Union General William Tecumseh Sherman coined the phrase “War is hell.”
How deliver it? Put it in wooden barrels and roll it down the hill when the Confederates were coming up. How ignite it? Roll a spherical exploding artillery round with a burning fuse down a little behind it. Shoot it with a tracer round? They did not have those per se but it’s just a bullet with flare chemicals on the read end. They had flares. Flaming Arrows?
The main problem with them using napalm is where do you safely store it during the bombardment by Confederate cannon before the infantry charge.
I don’t know. Might be a deal killer.
Barbed wire—Barbed wire was not invented until 1867. But if we Vietnam vets could go back in a time machine and take a bunch of concertina wire with us, we would have put triple rolls, probably on the Emmitsburg Road fence. Once again, did the people in the Civil War era have the technology to make concertina wire? Yes. They simply did not think of it. Must not have been trying very hard.
By the way, Wikipedia says barbed wire is often called bob wire or, in the Southeastern U.S., bobbed wire. That’s because the people who call it bob or bobbed wire can’t spell or talk. They’re trying to say barbed, but have not yet mastered it. Similarly, Wikipedia says Concertina wire is often called Constantine wire. No doubt, perhaps by the same morons who think barbed wire is bobbed wire. What Wikipedia meant to say was that not very bright people often mispronounce both barbed and concertina wire as bob or bobbed or Constantine. But they don’t have the guts to call it what it is.
In view of the fact that a great many Confederate soldiers were barefoot, the Union could have and should have thrown broken glass all over the Emmitsburg road and/or in the grass in that valley between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges. Captain Phillips thought of it and used it very effectively against one of the three pirates in the Maersk Alabama piracy. No one in the whole damned Union Army was ever smart enough to figure out that broken glass would have worked well against the great many barefoot Reb soldiers? Too high tech? Broken glass wasn’t patented until 1874?
Claymore mines—We also made big use of Claymore mines in Vietnam. They are ideally suited to stop Pickett’s charge type frontal assaults. They they have them in the Civil War? No, but they could have. It’s just a slab of explosive with a heavy metal backing so as much of the force of the blast goes forward as possible. On the front side of the mine are metal balls or pieces of metal. It is essentially a one-shot shotgun with no barrel, or in Civil War terminology and weaponry, a one-shot cannister round with no barrel. What explosive? C-4 now; black powder then (gunpowder).
How would they set it off? It’s a command detonated mine, that is, someone flips an electrical switch when the enemy in is front of it at the optimum distance. You could also rig up a trigger like to shoot a rifle or pistol. The trigger would release a spring-loaded hammer that hit a percussion cap and that, in turn, set off the black powder. Do you pull the trigger with your finger? Hell, no! You’d be dead. You could pull it with a string or use a telegraph which uses an electromagnet to move the noise maker when your receive a telegraph message. Use it to move the trigger instead.
Their failure to think of this simple application on existing technology probably cost thousands of Union lives in that battle
• Robert E. Lee—Forget Machiavelli. Robert E. Lee was apparently the greatest substance-less leader of all time. Maybe just the greatest image-builder of all time. He sure is respected almost like a god. After reading multiple books about Gettysburg, I have no idea why.
Start with the fact that he lost the battle. He spent four years at the same college as me. He graduated in 1829. Stood in the same formations. Wore the same uniforms. Marched on the same parade ground. And was taught the same three answers: yes, sir; no, sir; and no excuse, sir. If asked why he lost at Gettysburg, he would, or should, answer, “No excuse, sir.”
Many Southerners say he was poorly served by his subordinate generals. That’s an excuse, and a bullshit excuse at that. He trained those generals. He was also superintendent of West Point—the top guy there—1852 to 1855. J.E.B.Stuart graduated in 1854.
Furthermore, he picked them for the jobs they held at Gettysburg and could have replaced them on the spot. He did not replace any as I recall. At the same time, the Union guys were replacing people right and left including the top guy. General Hooker took charge in January 1863 and was fired in June three days before the Battle of Gettysburg. The new head guy, Meade, fired additional generals during the battle for not performing well enough. Lee needed to fire more of his but acted like that was an unspeakable violation of decorum and that decorum was more important than victory.
The movie Gettysburg, which is based on the book Killer Angels, depicted Lee as becoming inexplicably fixated on attacking here and now rather than seeking a better situation later. Okay. That appears to be the case, but the notion that such was his only poor performance at Gettysburg is nuts. He stunk up the joint six ways to Sunday morning noon and night every day of the battle. How? You name it.
He complained of being “blind” for most of the battle because his favorite cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart was absent at an unknown location. Well, whose fault is that? Lee picked him and gave him some orders that were either too vague or misinterpreted or Stuart was insubordinate or incompetent. He never showed up until the middle of the second of the three days..
And if you are blind—no cavalry to tell you the location and size of the enemy, what do you do? Actually, he had other cavalry that he simply did not use, apparently because he liked Stuart much better. Well, if Stuart ain’t there, and the enemy may be, and you are in enemy territory, you’d damned well better use whatever cavalry you have. Poor cavalry is better than no cavalry. A blurry view is better than no view. They can also put out skirmishers and small scouting parties to try to figure out what’s around them. They did a little of that. Why just a little? Knowing where the enemy is is crucial.
And if you are “blind,” how about stopping before you walk off a cliff figuratively speaking. Go to some good defensive ground and wait for J.E.B. Stuart to finally show up.
The blind man and his 50,000-or-so-man army stumbled forward. Seems like suicide, reckless, incompetence, mindless. All he did about lack of cavalry was whine. What he should have done was replace them or stop.
The first day battles were sort of ad hoc. He ordered his subordinate generals to not get into a big fight. They got into a big fight. So whose fault is that? A commander is responsible for everything his men do or fail to do. The first day was a bit of a mess and was not helpful to the Rebs. There was some hope they may have taken the high ground. But they did not.
Lee was wishy washy. He rarely seemed to give a clear order—as if to do so would be impolite or too bossy. He famously told Ewell, the commander at the north end of the Union position to take Culp’s Hill “if practicable.” Ewell decided it was not “practicable.” Well, how about just ordering him to take it and we‘ll find out whether it’s “practicable” by the results.
Then his commanders would often refuse to follow his orders when they understood them.
And what did he do about it it? Nothing. He just took it, reminiscent of the line in Annie Hall where she, a WASP, comments than in her house growing up, “raising your voice was the worst thing you could do.” Woody Allen responds that in his house the worst thing you would do was to pay retail.
Lee apparently grew up in a house like Hall’s. The Union top commander, Meade, sure as hell did not. He was everywhere during the battle including one location where he drew he saber because the enemy was coming at him through a gap in the Union lines that he had been trying to get filled. Just at that moment, his subordinate looked toward the rear said, “Here they come, general,” referring to the sprinting reinforcements Meade had been clamoring for. The gap was filled.
In contrast, Lee spent the battle mostly in a sort of rear area sky box silently observing. Meade and Hancock were all over the place placing troops, preparing, checking everything, rushing toward the sound of the guns whenever and wherever it began, yelling, cursing, firing incompetents, moving units, attacking, retreating. No large-scale commander on the Confederate side was playing the same big-picture role. Some of the lower Reb commanders were doing that on a regimental or brigade level, but no one was at the corps or army level.
It is unbelievable that Lee is so respected. Read the details of what happened at Gettysburg. Lee simply had the wrong guys all over the place and neither reprimanded nor replaced them when they needed it. Nor did he closely monitor the battle and make adequate mid-course corrections.
The book I liked most so far is Gettysburg: the Story of the Battle With Maps. The author is the editors of Stackpole Books. Each pair of pages is a full-color, excellent map on one side and narrative on the other. It is well written, well-illustrated, minces no words, and shows no bias.
This battle was a freaking street fight to the death. The Reb soldiers almost all seemed to fight well; less so many Reb commanders. The North had some entire units that were horseshit as well as some horseshit commanders. But the North also had plenty of units as good as the Rebs only without the theatrics of the rebel yell and the baseless hubris.
They say Gettysburg was the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. I believe it, although that’s not saying much. Below the Rio Grande, the militaries only fight their own unarmed civilians—unless you count the Soccer War or the Falklands War. I don’t. And although the U.S. had some battles with Canada and the British back in the day, none were on the scale of Gettysburg. Instead of comparing Gettysburg to other Western hemisphere battles, they should compare it to battles back in the old countries of Europe and Asia. I expect it would rank high.
My criticism of Lee here is not the result of my using a magnifying glass to find fault or my reading between the lines. All the authors of the various books seemed similarly angry at Lee’s obvious incompetence.
• Meade’s alleged failure to pursue Lee—I had always heard that Meade could have and should have pursued Lee and wiped out his army after Gettysburg. Coddington’s book, The Gettysburg Campaign, says Meade generally did what he should have.
I recommend you read Coddington’s book, but it has maps that are too few, too small, and too hard to read. Also get the Stackpole map book and have that opened to the day and time in question as your read Coddington’s book. You can’t write a satisfactory book about a war battle like this without excellent maps.
Lee got away, but it was mainly because of excellent retreat management by Lee, the fact that retreating militaries get a head start by leaving as soon as it gets dark, Meade’s army like Lee’s was in need of food, shoes, ammo, replacements, new organizational structure in light of all the dead generals and lower ranking soldiers. Meade’s days after the battle were spent with figuring out where Lee was and what he was doing, plus all the above reequipping, reorganizing, rearming, and complying with standing orders to stay between Lee and DC and Baltimore. For a day or two, it was not certain. After that, they could see he was trying to get back to Virginia. But Lee was on the west side of a mountain and Meade on the east. Lee had the passes guarded by Confederate troops.
This rumor was apparently started by one of Meade’s West Point classmates, General Herman Haupt. He was an excellent Army engineer working on the supply lines. He was not at Gettysburg during the battle. Nevertheless, he decided that Meade needed to attack Lee after Pickett’s charge failed on July 3rd because Lee’s men were demoralized, broken, on the run and easy to mop up. Haupt went to see Meade, commander of all Union forces in the Potomac River region to tell him to get his ass in gear and go get Lee. Meade was Haupt’s superior.
Haupt expressed the assumption that Meade would immediately march to the Potomac to cut Lee off and wipe him out. Meade said his men were too tired and beat up and in need of some meals and boots and so on before they could go on the attack. Haupt, who again, had not been at Gettysburg, did not buy it. Then Haupt complained to President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton and General Halleck, the General in Chief of the entire U.S. Army—Meade’s bosses. They bought the Haupt version.
In fact, Lee’s Army was bloodied but not bowed. They had fighting spirit, confidence, ammo for a full day of battle. They were not broken, demoralized, defenseless. Far from it. On July 4th, the day after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Rebs dug into strong positions on Seminary Ridge from which they had been attacking the Union on Cemetery Ridge. They were hoping Meade would attack them. He refused to take the bait. Then Lee decided he need to get back to Virginia ASAP.
It took the Union a night to figure out the Rebs had left. They then properly pursued them and monitored them from three sides with cavalry and other units. But as I said above, the Rebs got control of the various passes between the valley they were in and the more eastern valley the Union was in. When the Union cavalry got too close, the Rebs attacked them. When Buford, one of the Union’s top cavalry leaders and a hero of Gettysburg, attacked the retreating Lee, his troops were completely stopped by competent, hard-fighting Rebs. As I said, Lee conducted an extremely well-planned and well-executed retreat.
I will note that in my five years of Army training at West Point and afterward, we were never trained how to retreat. That is an outrage—childish. The only tiny little thing of that nature we learned was how to fell two trees diagonally across a road with their tops pointing toward the pursuing enemy simultaneously so the upper branches would get tangled up with each other as they fell. Okay, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Shame on the U.S. Army for not teaching that. I don’t know if they have changed.
As Lee approached the Potomac River in Maryland seeking the safety of Virginia on the other side, the ford he expected to use was no good because of heavy rains since the end of the Battle of Gettysburg. He decided to cross by pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, MD across from what is now West Virginia. There are a number of hills there including one 400 feet high—good ground from which to defend against Union attacks. Furthermore, the Rebs built breastworks there—chest high cover from behind which to fire at attacking Union guys—like the top parapet of a castle. That combined with the hills is extremely difficult to attack, as the Confederates found out at Gettysburg and the Union had not built many breastworks there.
A pontoon bridge is a whole lot of boats with planks laid across them for soldiers, horses, and wagons to go over. But a Union cavalry raid destroyed the pontoon bridge. Lee settled in to fight. The river level then fell to where Lee’s engineers could build a regular bridge. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in its entirety escaped across that bridge.
I am generally disparaging about special ops troops like rangers and SEALs. But that pontoon bridge and the successor regular bridge are excellent examples of missions that CAN be carried out successfully by small, specially trained units. The cavalry destroyed the pontoon bridge. Good. I would note it could also be destroyed by upstream troops putting large logs into the river, or by upstream guys sending bombs down river to explode when they hit the bridge. A couple of well-placed artillery pieces could also do it but I expect that would be hard to get within range and would quickly attract a Reb cavalry response. Being on the Virgina side might be better if there were few Reb forces there. But how do you get the artillery and its ammo over there? Upstream there would be more fords, but the Reb cavalry can use them too.
The point is a bridge is a tiny target and in a situation like Lee’s, a tiny attack on a tiny target can have a disproportionate effect on the enemy. Bringing in my time machine again, rangers from my era would know how to cross the river upstream from the Confederate crossing. The country may be too open and populated for special ops. The time for Meade to order the special ops would be right after the July 3rd battle. Furthermore, the troops would be in the west and not involved in the battle of Gettysburg. Meade knew that Lee had to go back to Virgina at some point. So send at least small forces there to disrupt the river crossing. Cavalry would have been best. He seemed to have many such not involved in Gettysburg on both the east and west sides of the Reb river crossing. Other than cavalry, I don’t think the Civil War guys had many thoughts about special ops. Sharpshooters could have delayed construction by picking off construction guys. If there were not so many bad guys on the Virginia side of the river, they could last a while before the rebs got to them. At which time, they would be toast like the Lone Survivor guys.
But there seemed to be no real opportunity for Meade’s army to attack in traditional fashion Lee’s army after July 4th. They may have gotten some time delay out of special ops disruption of the bridge activity, but it might still not have prevented the basic escape of Lee’s Army.
When you buy real estate investment property, or invade another country, you need to think ahead about how am I getting back out of this if necessary. The path Lee took to get into PA was a good one for going in either direction and he made good use of it both in the attack and in the retreat. Meade did nothing especially wrong in not attacking Lee during the retreat.
Lincoln, demonstrating that he could be just as full of crap as the next guy said,
We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours.
Either that’s a barefaced lie or his implication that he knew what the hell he was talking about was a lie. Honest Abe, my ass.
Meade should have answered the question of how the Army of Northern Virginia managed to get back to Virginia similar to the way that Confederate answered how they lost Gettysburg,
I always thought the Confederates—and the terrain—had something to do with it.
• Gatling guns—Gettysburg was a perfect place for the Union to use Gatling guns. But no Gatling guns were used until a year later at Petersburg. The Gatling gun was patented in November 1862, 18 months before Gettysburg, but as with the other technologies described above, the Civil War commanders and civilian leaders were too dumb to make use of them. Makes you wonder what technology we have now that might make us more efficient in combat. There sure as hell is a lot more technology now and the bureaucrats did not get any smarter.
The Coddington book I was reading came to an end today, surprisingly. It has 250 pages of notes in the back. I was sad to see it end.
John T. Reed