Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Battle of Gettysburg Was Almost the Battle of Pipe Creek

It was 160 years ago tomorrow, June 28, 1863, that George Meade was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing Joseph Hooker. 

He moved his army north on a broad front to prevent the enemy from threatening Baltimore and Washington. As he moved, he asked himself three questions:

Is his army too spread out?

Are its flanks too vulnerable to attack?

Could he force the enemy to concentrate somewhere in his front?

One thing is clear. Meade never intended to occupy an advanced position at Gettysburg. The only reason for sending the left wing of his army, under the command of General John Reynolds, was to lure the enemy into attacking him along a strong defensive line at Pipe Creek in Maryland. 

Meade had ordered Reynolds to "advance to Gettysburg" but not to defend the town. If Reynolds could cause the enemy to concentrate and deploy its forces, perhaps it could be lured into combat on the Pipe Creek line.

In essence, Reynolds' left wing (made up of the First, Eleventh, and Third Corps) comprised a "reconnaissance in force." At no point did Meade grant Reynolds the discretion to bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. The use of an advanced force was to cause the enemy to concentrate and deploy offensively in its front and then report the enemy's position and strength to the army commander. In the face of the enemy, the commander of the advanced force must begin a withdrawal that requires the enemy to offer resistance. In military terms, Meade's overarching intent was to deploy an advanced force that would "mask" his army's defensive plans and "unmask" the enemy's position and intentions. Meade never ordered any of his army corps to defend an advanced position at any time while he was the commander of the Army of the Potomac. He certainly did not do so on June 30. Reynolds was obligated to withdraw, halting frequently to return fire, then fall back on Howard's Eleventh Corps at Emmitsburg, 10 miles to the rear. Ultimately, however, Reynolds deployed the First and Eleventh Corps in a position that was not good because both flanks were exposed and because the size of the enemy forces approaching from the west and the north made it untenable. 

Hence what we know as the Battle of Gettysburg might just have easily been known as the Battle of Pipe Creek, Maryland!