In the Wake of Gettysburg - A Review of "Lee is Trapped and Must be Taken"

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“Lee is Trapped and Must be Taken”: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863 by Thomas J. Ryan and Richard R. Schaus (Savas Beatie, 2019).

Authors Ryan and Schaus note rather astutely that “Evaluations of Meade’s performance in the wake of Gettysburg usually focus on whether he should have assaulted Lee’s entrenched positions at Williamsport. Often overlooked are the options available to him other than a direct assault” (300). Well…they are certainly not wrong. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with students of the battle, fresh on the heels of reading a military history of the Gettysburg campaign, who have focused on this very evaluation. Many are critical of Meade and his failure to carry out such an attack…others support his decision. But there’s a lot more to the story than that…

Union General George Gordon Meade

Union General George Gordon Meade

The authors of this extraordinarily well-researched volume are at their best in reviewing all of the options before Meade in the aftermath of the Union victory at Gettysburg. They examine the decision-making process of the upper echelon of command and note opportunities offered and opportunities missed. Drawing from rich first-hand testimony and personal reflections of the campaign, the highly partisan press, the OR, published memoirs and regimental histories, and the voluminous secondary histories (both academic and otherwise) of the battle and its aftermath, the authors present a meticulously detailed account of Lee’s withdrawal from Gettysburg beginning on July 4, 1863 through the South Mountain passes to the Potomac River and the (relative) safety of Virginia. I especially appreciated how the authors couple narrative with careful analysis of the events. They reveal the misinformation, misinformed reports, and misread circumstances that at least partially colored the Union army perspective.

Overall, the authors are critical of Meade. “Meade, a West Point-trained officer, failed to apply all of his available assets - especially an intelligence staff with information derived from a variety of sources - to brief him and his corps commanders, and in this he was remiss in his duties” (263). Yes…Lee got away and the Army of Northern Virginia lived to fight another day…and the war dragged on for nearly two more years. “Remiss” suggests negligence, and that may be a bit harsh…but they are right to note that Meade had an opportunity, and that opportunity slipped.

According to the authors, Meade was hamstrung by a cautious disposition. The irony here is readily apparent. They point out, for example, how Meade had questioned the the wisdom of Hooker’s caution at Chancellorsville but then proceeded with caution himself after his victory at Gettysburg, always seeming to have some dubious reason for not executing the decisive blow against his battered enemy (206). Though the authors acknowledge that Meade deserves credit for where credit is due…after all, he defeated Lee…it was Meade’s cautious follow up, they suggest, that would ultimately spell a missed opportunity and extend the war. “Had Meade been more assertive and put into practice his candid critique of his predecessors,” the authors argue, “he would have enhanced his reputation as an army commander. The evidence is conclusive that Meade’s primary objective, despite continual urging from Washington, was to allow Lee and his army to cross the river before another major action took place” (300).

This book reinforces a standing observation among many (though certainly not all) historians. The Army of the Potomac, often numbering over 100,000 well-trained and well-equipped men, suffered from a culture of caution. If one were to examine the army’s short history, one would readily observe the failure of its commanders to effectively use overwhelming advantages in numbers between 1862 and 1863. Many have concluded that McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker were all too cautious; they hesitated when they had the numerical strength. Perhaps they lacked the moral courage to unleash the kind of fury necessary to put an end to the war. Perhaps they were simply not up to the task of whipping the better army and the more audacious commander. What this suggests to the reader (correctly, for what its worth) is that the Civil War was not simply a numbers game. It would take the willingness to act decisively and use all available resources to take down Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.

I especially appreciated how the authors implicitly bring the notion of turning points into question. Sure, Confederates were disappointed with a defeat, and Union soldiers were happy with a victory - yet the persistent idea that the war was somehow all downhill for the Rebels from Gettysburg forward does not emerge in this book. Rather, testimony from Confederate soldiers noting their determination and military prowess and from Union soldiers lamenting the continuation of the fight pepper this volume. My own work on the Petersburg Siege shows how Confederate soldiers in the trenches were certain that they would soon see victory…so I would be surprised if many Rebs thought that all was lost in Pennsylvania. Despite the “setback,” as many observed, they remained confident in their commander.

Missed opportunities…from  “Lee is Trapped…”  (pg. 160)

Missed opportunities…from “Lee is Trapped…” (pg. 160)

I really enjoy books like this simply for the fact that they inspire further thought on the campaign. Though there are around 6 zillion books on the Battle of Gettysburg, I never grow tired of discussing it and reading different takes on the action (or lack, thereof…as it were). Readers should find plenty to debate after reading “Lee is Trapped…” What was Meade’s mission? Destroy Lee’s army and close the deal (like Halleck and Lincoln wished) or defend Washington City (Like Halleck and Lincoln wished…). And then there’s the whole “newness” issue. After all, Meade had assumed command of the army only days before the battle - hell, he didn’t even know where all the various pieces were located and had to get up to speed quickly before he took on the Confederacy’s best. I mean…it’s at least possible that he acted prudently in the wake of victory…isn’t it? Remember, his army was knocked around a bit too. Not only had the Army of the Potomac lost thousands killed, wounded, and captured - but he also had three new corps commanders with which to deal and many of his veteran field-grade officers were dead. Suffice it to say…the command structure was a mess. I enjoyed this book for the fact that the authors take all of this into consideration and tend to read the story forward rather than adjudicating from the vantage point of the 21st century.

The historiographical component of the book was useful as well - noting (though not comprehensively, as the authors explain) some of the more significant contributions from scholars of the battle - including the works of Samuel Penniman Bates, Jessie Bowman Young, T. Harry Williams, Edwin B. Coddington, Michael C. C. Adams, Gabor S. Boritt, and Stephen W. Sears among many others. Oddly omitted from this list is the work of John B. Bachelder, the preeminent 19th-century historian of the battle…but I suppose I can forgive this in light of the other vast resources harnessed for the writing of this book. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of “Lee is Trapped…” then we can discuss in the comments and on the usual social media suspects.

With compliments,

Keith