Return to Book Review List
GETTYSBURG: THE SECOND DAY
Reviewed by Dave Walter
If, as many historians think, Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the American Civil War, then the second day, July 2, 1863, was the pivotal day. As Mr. Pfanz, a former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, makes clear, the decisions made by Lee and Meade that day could have easily tilted the outcome.
Mr. Pfanz has written a detailed book; seemingly every sergeant of every regiment involved left some record which Mr. Pfanz has found and is compelled to share with the reader (the end notes and bibliography run more than 100 pages). After a while, you can't keep the players straight (e.g. Humphreys - once CSA regimental commander and two USA generals with this name); however, it makes sense if you segment the book into the various actions that took place in echelon order, as the various CSA divisions move to the attack. [Note to authors: why not put CSA commanders in italics and USA commanders in bold so readers can keep them straight when "Jones then did such and such" is mentioned.]
General Longstreet later said that his corp's attack on July 2nd was the "best three hours fighting ever done by any troops on any battlefield." Eleven Confederate brigades fought twenty-two Union brigades. They smashed the III Corps and defeated many of the piecemeal reinforcements that were fed, seemingly one by one, into the battle by Meade and his subordinates. It was a classic case of what Lee had always dreamed: that inferior Confederate forces could win by smashing superior Union forces that cooperated by failing to concentrate their strength. Pfanz lovingly explains Gen. Sickles' reasoning for moving his III Corps forward just before the Confederate assault which decimated his positions in Devils Den, the Wheatfield and the Peace Orchard. Sickles forever thought this movement had saved the Union army from defeat: as he explained it, the rebs were surprised to find him there (which they were) and lost their momentum in attacking him. Pfanz concludes, however, that "Gen. Sickles increased the odds of Confederate success when he advanced his III Corps from its important and relatively secure position on Cemetery Ridge. In doing so he had abandoned vital terrain, isolated his corps, and put the entire army at special risk. It was a grievous error mitigated only by the hard and costly fighting of his corps and by the assistance given it by the corps of Hancock and Sykes."
Many Civil War enthusiasts are thoroughly familiar with the role of Sykes' V Corps on the second day. His were the troops that hurried to Little Round Top just in time to stop Hood's Alabamians, save the Union left, and immortalize Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. Even the fighting by Hood's Texans in the Devil's Den has received a lot of coverage. Less known is the fierce fighting that took place north of Devils Den along the Emmitsburg Road as McLaw's division smashed into III Corps units that had been weakened by the need to shore up the left attacked by Hood. Then, as the battle progresses, Pfanz does a terrific job of revealing the maneuvering against the Union center by the brigades of Wright, Barksdale, Wilcox and Perry of A.P. Hill's corps.
This was the same ground which "Pickett's Charge" would cover the next day against many of the same Union II Corps troops under Hancock. Indeed, Wright's brigade managed to penetrate the Union line on the second day to a far greater (and dangerous) extent than did Armistead's Virginians on the third day. If some of this is news to you, as it was to me, read this section of the book even if you don't have time for the rest.
Of course, the big controversy of the second day is, "Did Lee order a dawn attack, which Longstreet sabotaged by sulking and foot-dragging? Would the Confederate army have been better to heed Longstreet's advice to slip around the Union left and get between the Army of the Potomac and Washington in order to meet them defensively on a site chosen by the Army of Northern Virginia?" Pfanz concludes there is no evidence for a dawn attack, based on testimony provided by various of Lee's staff officers who wrote accounts of the battle after the war. Longstreet did have to wait for some of his brigades to come up, then - due to poor reconnaissance by a staff officer - the famous "countermarch" ate up more time. Pfanz faults Lee for not having brought Ewell's troops from the Confederate right where the terrain they faced (Culp's Hill) was not conducive to offensive operations. Had a substantial part of Ewell's corps been brought to Seminary Ridge, the July 2nd attack "could have been delivered in greater strength and with a greater chance of success."As for slipping around the Union left, Lee was smart to turn down Longstreet's plan.
Without Stuart's cavalry (which didn't come up until the second day's battles were concluded), he was ignorant of where all the Union corps were. Lee could not risk having several corps descend on an ANV strung out over many miles. (The book, "An Alternate Gettysburg," had Longstreet striking behind the Round Tops, only to have him caught between most of the AOP and its arriving VI corps.)
The story of the second day gives rise to all sorts of "he should have done this" scenarios. You can have fun playing with Lee's and Meade's decisions forever (and probably our great grandchildren will). For instance, maybe Lee's second day ambitions should have been scaled back once they discovered Sickles had moved out of place. A less ambitious plan to destroy just Sickles, and then withdrawn to Seminary Ridge to await a Union attack (remember, the Lincoln administration would not have been content to allow Meade to sit and wait for Lee to attack him) which could have gone just as badly for the Union as Pickett's Charge went for the south.
With this book, Pfanz carries on his voluminous study of Gettysburg started in "Gettysburg: The First Day." Though Jeffry D. Wert has already written "Gettysburg: Day Three," it would be interesting to see Pfanz finish the series.