- Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
What did Robert E. Lee do following the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and how did he do it? What were the challenges, decisions, and results affecting two more years of war? Kent Masterson Brown contends that Lee’s well-managed retreat from Gettysburg maintained the Civil War’s military equilibrium (Clausewitz’s “balance of power”) and was a logistical and managerial victory.
Brown’s acknowledgements are a who’s who of Civil War historiography. The bibliography contains an impressive list of primary sources. However, what should be an analysis of strategy and leadership too often devolves into microhistory. The principal thesis and strategy of Lee’s retreat is clouded by long quotes, detailed vignettes, passive voice, and some turgidly long sentences. Much quotation and data could have been allocated to appendices, along with the anti-climactic chapter fourteen.
Brown depicts Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in logistical terms; the Confederacy’s desperate need for supplies drove the plan. However, Brown fails to mention political and diplomatic factors in the decision to invade the North, which they hoped would bring about a decisive Confederate victory, thus compelling British recognition or pressuring Lincoln to end [End Page 116] the war. While it magnifies logistics and his thesis, absence of reference to the diplomatic and national political context of the Gettysburg campaign is Brown’s most serious omission.
Brown succinctly described Lee’s plan of retreat as “a simple one.” While its execution was dangerous and complex, Brown inadvertently diminishes Lee’s genius by noting that Lee devised a potential avenue of retreat the prior month. Withdrawal on July 3, before Pickett’s charge and the rain, would have minimized Lee’s problems during retreat (distance, mud, transport of vital supplies and livestock, mountains, thousands of wounded, and Union pursuit). According to Brown, Meade also faced severe problems, mitigating his failure to pursue Lee aggressively. Yet Meade’s problems (lack of intelligence, weariness, staff and personal hesitancy) were more easily solved than Lee’s. Herein could have been the most provocative aspect of Retreat from Gettysburg. Disappointingly, Brown does not take that line. He barely probes why Meade did not pursue rapidly and aggressively. In fact, Lee was vulnerable and Meade timid.
Brown excuses Meade’s hesitancy and cites the same conditions affecting Lee who acted successfully. Brown summarized the dilemma on page 167: “He [Meade] had no intention of engaging the enemy.” If not, then where is the grandness of Lee’s retreat? He was safe anyway. Then Brown contradicts his earlier assessment. On page 255, he cites Meade’s “strenuous efforts” at pursuit, only to contradict that later with Meade’s directive to Sedgwick not to attack Lee. On July 5, Meade even countermanded a subordinate’s marching orders contributing to a thirty-hour hiatus in his army’s actions.
On July 11, Meade was two miles from Lee. Yet on page 326, Brown asserts that “there was nothing Meade could have done to prevent Lee from winning the race to the Williamsport defense line.” Could he not have pressed his troops, made a flanking movement across the Potomac, or sustained pressure against a retreating foe? Lee expected Meade to attack (335). That’s what Lee would have done. Meade should have overruled his officers, moved his army south with alacrity, and compelled Lee to give battle, scatter his forces, or remain with his back to the Potomac. Meade procrastinated and Lee returned to Virginia. Lee’s weakened army and train of supplies should have provoked Meade to pursue. However hungry and tired the Union forces, Lee’s men were in worse condition. Why does Brown, who is soft on Lee, his subject, equivocate regarding Meade? Simply put, Brown foregoes criticism.
Despite Lee’s competence and skill in retreat, it is hard to see how [End Page 117] Lee’s withdrawal restored “equilibrium.” There was no longer a balance of power after Gettysburg. The only edge retained by the Confederacy was Lee, its...