Stonewall at Gettysburg?

on April 23, 2013 in American Civil War, Battles
Culp's Hill

Union breastworks that were eventually built on Culp’s Hill
(Credit: Library of Congress)

As I describe in my Introduction to Stonewall Goes West, speculation as to what might have happened if Stonewall Jackson had been present at Gettysburg probably began before that battle was even over. The idea has been done to death in several published counterfactual historical essays and books, at least one novel, in countless internet forum discussions, and chewed over endlessly by reenactors.

The fixation on Stonewall at Gettysburg has much to do with the supposition that Jackson could have won Gettysburg for Lee, and a victory at Gettysburg would have been decisive enough to win the Civil War for the South. Many of the scenarios involving his presence are noteworthy mostly for their lack of realism in this regard, making bad assumptions and fantastic leaps in order to reach a desired conclusion. To illustrate that lack of realism, I’ll wave the magic wand, assume Jackson emerges from his ill-considered nighttime reconnaissance at Chancellorsville without bringing friendly fire down on himself and his staff, and explore some of the issues surrounding Stonewall at Gettysburg.

July 1st and Culp’s Hill
My first assumption is that up to a certain point, Jackson would not have differed much from Ewell on July 1st. Ewell’s performance in bringing Rodes and Early into battle and crushing the XI Corps is generally well thought of, and there is no reason to think Jackson could have improved upon it. Jackson would also have taken some time to become familiar with the ground, so it is reasonable to assume he would have become aware of Culp’s Hill and dispatched some aides to reconnoiter it at the same time as Ewell did — while James Power Smith was delivering his request for orders and assistance in assaulting Cemetery Hill to Lee.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the situation on Culp’s Hill is that it was unoccupied at that time. The two aides sent by Ewell to investigate the area didn’t find any Federals there, but what that meant in practice was that they somehow missed the presence of the Iron Brigade in the dense forest, or they departed shortly before the Iron Brigade arrived. While it is reasonable to assume that Jackson wouldn’t wait for word from Lee before organizing an advance on Culp’s Hill, it is folly to think he would order that advance blindly. At a minimum, he would have waited until his aides reported on their mission, and therefore the Iron Brigade would have been on Culp’s Hill waiting for him.

The only troops actually on hand that could conceivably have made an advance on Culp’s Hill were Hays’s and Avery’s Brigades of Early’s Division. The rest of Early’s command and Rodes’s Division were too far away, and Allegheny Johnson’s Division would not arrive on the scene until after dark. Early objected to using his men, who had already been in one fight that day, to take Culp’s Hill, and Ewell assigned the job to Johnston.

There is no doubt in my mind that Jackson would not have waited for word from Lee or cared what Early thought, but would instead have ordered Early to put Hays and Avery into motion. With two hours of daylight left at that point, Hays and Avery should have been able to maneuver into a position where they could deploy and approach Culp’s Hill without being hammered by the massed artillery on Cemetery Hill, march up the slope, and then discover and attack the Iron Brigade.

The Iron Brigade was exhausted and sorely depleted by fighting earlier that day, and some historians assume that Hays and Avery would have shoved them off Culp’s Hill with little difficulty. I’m not so sure. The Iron Brigade was the toughest outfit in the Army of the Potomac, they were defending a good position with plenty of cover, and the thick forest would have hampered efforts by Hays and Avery to fully establish the Iron Brigade’s position and then flank it. Given how long it would take to reach Culp’s Hill without getting shot up by Federal artillery, to deploy, to climb the slope, to make contact with the Iron Brigade, and then to flank them and drive them off… sunset could very easily have come before all of that had time to play out.

Ultimately, I believe if Jackson were there he might have captured Culp’s Hill. It’s the sort of thing where a little good luck one way or the other would have made all the difference.

Culp’s Hill Captured — What Then?
Here we arrive at what is the main problem with virtually every scenario where Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg leads to decisive Confederate victory: they all assume that having lost Culp’s Hill, George Gordon Meade would simply have stood there like a sacrificial bull, waiting for the hammer to fall, and that Hancock would have done nothing while the Army of the Potomac marched into an untenable position. To assess either man in such a fashion is an act of pure fantasy, either ignorant or willful.

At sunset of July 1st, only the remnants of I and XI Corps were in position; historically, II, III, and XII Corps would arrive during the night. There was very little to stop Meade from simply turning around and leaving if he wanted to, perhaps to his intended defensive position at Pipe Creek. Other counterfactual scenarios have envisioned Meade still fighting at Gettysburg, but abandoning Cemetery Hill and Ridge for a position farther south.

Ultimately, Jackson’s seizure of Culp’s Hill would have become a mere footnote, as it merely would have forced a small part of the Army of the Potomac to abandon a flawed position during the night. Either a defensive battle similar in most respects to Gettysburg would have been fought nearby, or the battle would have become a minor victory in a larger campaign. Whatever happened, it could never have become the prelude to a decisive Confederate victory.


One Response to “Stonewall at Gettysburg?”

  1. eric gray says:

    Highly energetic article, I liked that bit. Will there be a part 2?

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