A century and a half ago, the bloodiest battle on American soil erupted. Over the course of three days, more American soldiers died than in ten years of fighting the Vietnam War. Lessons and meanings from this battle both shaped the next century of warfare and were also ignored. Following are a few in no certain order of importance:
Gettysburg set the tone for many 20th Century battles Every officer educated in warfare in the first half of the 1800s learned Napoleonic ideas of the war of movement. Robert E. Lee generally followed those precepts. Military thinkers going back to classical Europe and ancient China warned against attacking a superior enemy on his own ground. Lee, understanding the accelerating degeneration of the Confederate home front, sought to attack a stronger enemy well entrenched on the high ground. Had Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson had lived and been there, he certainly would have counseled Lee to wait until a portion of George Meade's Union force became isolated, then throw the whole weight of his army on it, annihilate it, then move on quickly.
Instead, Lee on the final day attacked the center of the Union line across open ground. Confederate troops marched in formation against artillery and infantry positioned behind a stone wall. Lee lost the core of his army that day.
World War I is full of "Gettysburg" type battles. Troops bashing themselves against unmovable obstacles of enemy formations for four years. Amazingly, few in Europe learned about modern warfare from this. The dash of the Prussian Army against France's unprepared forces in 1871 seduced Europe.
Gettysburg may have prevented a Northern revolution We remember the sanguinary days early in July 1863 in Pennsylvania, but forget the horrific events in New York City at about the same time. New York had suffered economically from the elimination of Southern trade. Almost as much as Baltimore, New York City sympathized with the Rebellion. Economic problems combined with the grind of a seemingly (at that point) unwinnable war, the draft, and a substantial black population created a catalyst for social explosion.
These were some of New York City's darkest days. Rioters attacked draft offices, then turned their attention to the black population. Victims hung from street lamps. Not even an orphanage for black children was spared. Republican editors handed out guns to defend their lives and newspaper property. Overwhelmed, the New York City police had to be reinforced by regiments from nearby Gettysburg. If those units had been much farther away, the riot could have bloomed into something much worse.
Don't forget the other battle that officially ended the same day July 4th marked the last day of Gettysburg. George Meade won the field; Lee stumbled away dazed. In Mississippi, Ulysses S. Grant won a victory no less significant. The Siege of Vicksburg had actually ended a few days prior, but Grant insisted that the Confederates officially surrender on July 4th. From then, Union forces dominated the length of the Mississippi River.
Grant's victories meant that Lincoln could follow his instinct and move the fighting general into command, despite the many naysayers. Meade's inability to crush Lee's army after Gettysburg also made this decision an easy one.
Intelligence For the first time in American history, an official and permanent military intelligence bureau played a key role in a battle. Stonewall Jackson had been a pioneer in his insistence upon accurate maps, but these came from local help. Meade had the services of the Bureau of Military Intelligence. They employed spies, mapmakers, and analysts to track and predict the movement of Lee. Lee relied on traditional intelligence gathering, the cavalry. Unfortunately, Lee's cavalry was gallivanting across the rich countryside.
No one would ever give Meade credit for being a superior general to Lee. But his information gave his teh advantage over Lee's relative blindness.
Military thought Lee, McClellan, and other generals on both sides thought in Napoleonic ways. Points on a map represented strategic objectives. Capture an important city and win the war. Why anyone thought the capture of Richmond in 1862 (when Union forces approached within ten miles of it) would halt the war remains unclear. Frederick the Great never quit when Russians seized Berlin. George Washington gave up New York and Philadelphia. So long as his army remained intact, he fought.
Lincoln came to understand that the strategic objectives of the Union Army had to be the military might and resources of the Confederacy itself. William Tecumseh Sherman attacked the farmland and infrastructure of Georgia. Phil Sheridan systematically annihilated the Shenandoah Valley's farmland. Grant only pushed against Richmond because Lee's Army of Northern Virginia insisted on defending it.
World War II saw a similar dynamic in three dimensions. Strategic bombing aimed to eliminate industrial resources and infrastructure. Hitler's armies and Japan's navy needed to disappear before the Allies could move against their respective homelands.
In the 1940s the Allies attacked the enemy population themselves. Royal Air Force bombers launched attacks against German neighborhoods. The Red Army pillaged, massacred, and raped German civilians in Prussia (to be fair, Germans acted the same while in Russia.) Just like when Sherman fired civilian homes in Georgia, this did little to eliminate the will to fight. It merely inflamed the hatred.
Just a few thoughts as we pause to remember Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and their meanings in war.