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The High-Water Mark

One hundred and forty-five years ago today, was the beginning of the end of the southern cause:

The names of the places associated with the charge are deeply indented on the American conscience. Every summer, "The Angle" and "The High Water Mark" are crowded with visitors who come to commemorate the event and ponder those terrible minutes when American killed American in a desperate contest of wills and ideals. So much carnage in such a small place- it is difficult for us today to realize the horror those young men faced, and how quickly the hopes of the North and South were determined in this famous battle.

Even if they had won Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg the next day to Grant probably sealed the fate of the Confederacy. The war might have lasted longer had Lee's Pennsylvania campaign been successful, but it seems unlikely that the south could have held out long enough.


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Bill White wrote:

Rand, are you familiar with this historical hypothesis?

Custer saved the Union

Civil War historians have long been puzzled by Pickett's seemingly suicidal frontal attack on the Union center at Gettysburg.

Here, for the first time, Paul D. Walker reveals Robert E. Lee's true plan for victory at Gettysburg: a simultaneous strike against the Union center from the front and rear--Pickett's infantry to charge the front, while Stuart's cavalry struck the rear. The frontal assault by Pickett went off as scheduled, but as Stuart's forces approached from the rear, they encountered a Union cavalry contingent. As the forces joined, leadership of the Union cavalry shifted, and command fell to one of the most dynamic figures in American history--George Armstrong Custer.

What followed was America's greatest cavalry battle: 7,500 Confederate horsemen ranged against 5,000 Union cavalry, Jeb Stuart against George Custer, with the outcome of the Civil War at stake.

Eh, "revealed for the first time" is hyperbole, as I recall others asserted this theory before Walker, but not in a complete book.

Anyway, the author asserts that Stonewall Jackson previously led fast flying columns of infantry to accomplish similar feats of maneuver warfare (showing up where he wasn't expected) but alas, Jackson was dead before Gettysburg.

Had Stuart arrived behind Union lines simultaneously with Pickett, the Union army would have been cut in half by the totally unexpected blow and routed.

This theory is built on slim circumstantial evidence and yet the alternative is that Lee simply blundered by ordering a suicidal charge.

Bill White wrote:

My apologies for the wrong link

Tom Carhart's book is the one I intended to link:

Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg--And Why It Failed

narciso wrote:

Isn't it more appropriate to say that"they won the war but lost the piece. The Union prevailed over
the Confederacy ; however Forrest's irregulars in the Klan, waged an insurgent campaign that overcame the 'occupation authorities, and combined with the apathy after the 1873 crash, forced the
close election of 1876, the subsequent compromise, the rise of Jim Crow, by the Bourbon Redeemers, and the ultimate ratification by the Supreme Court
with Plessy, which extended this 'southern fried
apartheid' for nearly a century.

Bill White wrote:

Here is an excerpt from a review of the Carhart book.

Through the use of primary sources and deduction from the evidence, Carhart reveals the astute knowledge General Robert E. Lee had of the tactics and strategies of Napoleon and demonstrates that the Confederate commander did not simply make a poor tactical decision that fateful day on July 3, 1863, but that "Pickett's Charge ... was at least in part, a massive distraction" (p. 4) of a master plan known only to Lee and possibly a few other key individuals. Carhart presents evidence that it was Lee's desire to replicate the Napoleonic victory in Italy at the Battle of Castiglione in 1796. J. E. B. Stuart's force "would have come up behind Culp's Hill" to "roll up the Union right wing." This strategy, however, was altered to create instead a new "plan of attack," one that "would involve cutting the Union force in half and then defeating it in detail," as had been done at Austerlitz by Napoleon in 1805 (p. 176). This plan was cut short, mainly by the heroic actions of a Civil War officer of post´┐ŻCivil War fame, George Armstrong Custer, serving with the Michigan cavalry at the time.

Crimso wrote:

IIRC, there was an entire fresh Union Corps (the largest of the seven present, again IIRC) in reserve. Even had Stuart not had to fight Custer, that force would have annihilated him.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

I doubt it's a coincidence that Stuart was where he was. But the whole thing strikes me as "longshot". Meade did a competent job of placing and using his superior numbers of troops. Even if Pickett's charge turned out to route the Union Army at relatively little cost, the previous two days insured that the South would come out considerably weakened.

Monte Davis wrote:

This theory is built on slim circumstantial evidence and yet the alternative is that Lee simply blundered by ordering a suicidal charge.

There's another alternative: that Lee knew that all the trends of manpower, materiel, and learning curve were running against the Confederacy. He needed a psychological counterweight to those strategic facts -- something that (added to his success at Chancellorsville in May) would change political psychology in the Union, like the prospect of a threat to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. He had to gamble for that.

Paul Spudis wrote:

There was another factor at work in Lee's thinking that I haven't seen anyone else bring up. The Army of Northern Virginia was on a roll. They had met and soundly clobbered the Union Army of the Potomac continuously in the past 2 years -- 1st and 2nd Manassas, the Penninsula, Jackson's Valey campaign, Fredericksburg, and most recently and emphatically, Chancellorsville. The rebels held not only the strategic offensive, but the pyschological offensive as well. Lee reasoned that given that edge, one last, enormous push might just crack the Federals. Then, the road to Washington would be wide open.

And the one other thing to remember, this July 4th -- he almost pulled it off.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

Actually, I forgot a major factor. The twin defeats kept Europe out of the affair. I don't think anyone in Europe was remotely eager to put troops into the US Civil War meatgrinder, seeing as these were casualty counts not seen since the Napoleonic wars (the Battle of Leipzig, the largest battle in Europe before the First World War had only double the casualties of Gettysburg). But regaining a foothold in the Americas via the Confederacy would have been tempting for several of the powers. And a weakened US would be less of a threat to British naval power.

In particular, if the UK had decided to employ its navy to lift the blockades of Confederate ports, that could have significantly changed the war. The UK also had ironclads (assuming they could get them to the States) and of course, the largest fleet by far.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on July 3, 2008 6:48 AM.

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