Our speaker on 9 May 2013 was fellow-member Mr Stan Lambrick who gave us an illustrated presentation on the Battle of Gettysburg that took place during the American Civil War. He started off by sketching the popularity of the military history and re-enactments of Civil War battles in the United States - he in fact, had been able to attend one of the latter at Gettysburg, and participate as well.
The Battle of Gettysburg, the largest ever fought on American soil, was the turning point of the American Civil War. It was fought on 1 to 3 July 1863, 150 years ago. It was known as the "high tide of the Confederacy" and the Confederate hopes for a separate nation dwindled and eventual defeat faced the South.
The war, fought between the 23 northern states plus 2 taken by the north in 1861 and 11 southern states, took place between 1861 and 1965, although both sides had high hopes for a short war. The north had by June 1863 taken control of the Mississippi from the Great Lakes to New Orleans, with the exception of the important river port of Vicksburg, thus cutting the Confederacy in two. In June 1863 Vicksburg was besieged by Gen. Grant.
In the east, Gen. Lee with his army of Northern Virginia inflicted defeat after defeat on the Union armies. A Virginian, he had been offered command of the Union Forces but instead joined the Confederacy. Commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, he in turn defeated McClennan at Antietam, Burnside at Fredericksburg and Hooker at Chancellorsville, where his best subordinate, Stonewall Jackson, was killed.
In May 1863, Lee persuaded the Confederate Government that his army should invade Yankee territory as a step towards defeating the North. The main advantage of this would be access to the rich farmlands of the North. If he could win a decisive victory against the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln might agree to a peace plan, European powers recognize the south as a new nation and a victory might force Grant, who was besieging Vicksburg, to send some of his forces east to help defend Washington.
Having lost his most aggressive commander Jackson, Lee divided his army into three corps of 20 000 men each. The First Corps was commanded by Lt Gen James Longstreet, the Second Corps by Lt Gen Richard Ewell and the Third Corps by Gen A P Hill. His artillery of 6,000 men and 250 guns was divided so that each corps had 5 units to be used by the corps commander as he saw fit.
Lee was 57 years old, much loved and respected by his men. He was an honest and religious man who did not own slaves. His health was poor. Longstreet was 42 years old. He was Lee's second in command, a huge, bearded man, solid, dependable and capable but a defensive commander. Ewell was 46 and had a false leg; therefore he commanded his corps from a buggy and not on a horse. A good divisional commander, he had not been tried as a corps commander and was inexperienced as such. Eccentric and unsure of himself, he did not take chances on the field of battle. Hill was 37 and untried as a corps commander as well. He was moody and bad-tempered, often ill and was averse to obeying orders.
The cavalry, 12,500 strong, was led by the 30 year-old and flamboyant Gen J E B Stuart, a superb leader but he would fail Lee at Gettysburg. His job was to keep Lee informed of the Northern Army's movements but he did not do this. Lee's army totalled 80,000 men, well trained and eager but lacking sufficient horses (some 1.5 million horses and mules died in the war).
The Northern and Southern Armies faced one another across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg after the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 but, on 3 June, Lee made the first move. Ewell's corps departed first, followed by Longstreet's on 7 June. Hill remained, giving the impression that the Southern Army was still in place. A major cavalry battle took place at Brandy Station where Stuart was taken by surprise although he managed to repel the Northern horse. By the 15th Ewell had cleared the Shenandoah Valley of Yankees and Lee ordered the rest of his army to move north.
Hooker ordered some of his forces north to track the Confederates, which consisted of cavalry led by Maj.-Gen. Buford, followed by two corps under Gen. Reynolds. By 23 June Lee's army was strung out over a distance of 100 miles/160km. Stuart now convinced Lee that he could cause damage to the Yankee supply services if he could take his cavalry behind their lines. Lee agreed but stipulated that, if Hooker's forces crossed the Potomac, he was to rejoin Ewell who was moving north into Pennsylvania. Stuart's intention was to restore his reputation, dented at Brandy Station. While he was doing his own thing, Stuart neglected to keep Lee advised of Federal movements and this had serious implications a week later, when the armies were converging on Gettysburg.
Stuart left 3,000 men to guard the Blue Mountain passes through which the bulk of Lee's forces were moving. With 10,000 men he set off on 24 June. Whilst he was capturing 125 richly laden supply wagons and some badly needed horses, he was completely out of contact with Lee.
Since mid June Hooker seemed to be entirely at a loss as to what should be done. On 15 June some elements of his force started moving north and he demanded more men from his superiors in Washington. These were kept back to defend the capital in case Washington D.C. again might be threatened by the southern forces as happened before, in 1861.
By the 25th, Lee's advance north was going well. Ewell was ordered to head for Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania, with Longstreet and Hill to follow on behind. Hooker moved his headquarters to Frederick and informed Washington that, if he did not get the 10,000 men based at Harper's Ferry, he would resign. President Lincoln accepted his resignation and offered command to Gen. Reynolds, who declined to accept the post. Gen. George Meade of the 5th Corps was appointed. A vain and bad-tempered man of 47, he wore glasses and had a scraggly beard and was known to his men as "old goggle-eyed snapping turtle". But looks and temperament aside, he was a competent commander.
Hooker left him no plans but Meade decided that he would not just follow Lee. He would force him into a battle. On the 29th he ordered his whole army of some 90,000 men to march north. Gen. Buford's cavalry were to scout ahead and Gen. Reynolds with three corps would follow.
Ewell's troops had passed Chambersburg and he was ordered to head for Harrisburg on a wide front. Ewell sent Early's division towards Gettysburg, a sleepy town with a leather works, carriage factory and Lutheran seminary and with a population of 2,400. But Gettysburg was strategically located as a major road junction with ten roads converging there. One of the main objectives of Lee's advance was the capture of supplies, livestock and foodstuffs, paid for with worthless Confederate currency. No Looting was allowed. Early captured the town, headed on for York and sent word to Hill that there was a shoe factory in Gettysburg. This was important information as many Confederate soldiers went barefoot. Early moved on, capturing York and intending to cross the Susquehanna River to attack Harrisburg. But the federals had destroyed the bridge. By the 28th Longstreet had reached Chambersburg and found out that the whole Federal Army was on its way north and that he had just passed through their lines. Lee was informed but, as he had heard nothing from Stuart, did not really believe the report. Gen. Heth reported the presence of Federal cavalry near Gettysburg. Lee then ordered his scattered forces to concentrate at Gettysburg but not to start a battle until the army was reunited.
Buford's cavalry division entered Gettysburg on 30 June. They scouted the area and Buford decided to hold the high ground of Seminary Ridge from which he had a good view over the area. He advised Gen. Reynolds, who was some 12 miles/19km away, that he would hold the high ground to the west of Gettysburg. On the same day, Pettigrew's infantry of Hill's corps approached Gettysburg down the Cashtown road, looking for shoes. They sighted Buford and withdrew, but Buford knew that they would return in force.
On 1 July Buford posted his 2,700 men in a defensive arc to the west of Gettysburg. He took post in the bell tower of the seminary. At about 0800 Heth's division arrived at Herr's Ridge and decided that his 7,400 men would easily roll back the few Federals. He did not know that Buford's men were armed with the latest Spencer repeating rifles, far superior weapons than the muskets of the Confederates, and some horse artillery. Heth's attack was held. Reynold's 1st Corps arrived just in time to prevent Heth from breaking through. As his men moved into position, Gen. Reynolds was shot and killed. The Confederates could not understand the stiff resistance of the Federals but soon realized that infantry had reinforced the cavalry. By noon, the Federals were pushed back and retreated through the town to the south where they were joined by Howard's 11th Corps on Cemetery Ridge. Ewell's corps was approaching the battlefield and the Yankees were on the run.
Lee and Hill rode over to Herr's Ridge where they met Gen. Heth who reported that his division was held up by Federal infantry and requested permission to proceed with his attack. He was wearing a hat which was too large for him. His staff had stuffed it with paper to make a better fit. He pushed two more brigades into the attack. A Minnie ball hit him on the head, fracturing his skull. The paper deflected the ball and saved his life. At 1630 Lee arrived on Seminary Ridge and saw that the Federals were in retreat. He ordered Hill to attack but Hill said that his men were too tired. A similar message was sent to Ewell with the same result. His generals had failed Lee as the Confederates could have won the battle that evening.
Longstreet arrived ahead of his corps and saw the Federals digging in on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge and more troops were coming up. Longstreet saw this and suggested that the next move should be to go around the federals to the south, take up a defensive position on favourable ground and wait for Meade to attack them. Lee insisted "the enemy is here - we will attack tomorrow morning".
Hancock's 2nd Corps arrived on Cemetery Ridge and he assumed command until Meade arrived the next day. The Union line was shaped like a fish hook. The hook comprised the defences of Culp's Hill, the right flank of the army. Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge formed the shank of the hook, running for two miles south. The night was quiet, both sides exhausted after their march to Gettysburg. Meade arrived before dawn and met with Hancock. They decided to await Lee's move and, in the meantime, strengthen their line from Culp's Hill south along Cemetery Ridge. Sickles and his 3rd corps arrived to strengthen the line. Not sure of the terrain, he moved men into the ground below the Ridge. About a mile across the valley, the Confederate army waited in the woods on Seminary Ridge. The valley between the two ridges would be the scene of fierce fighting.
Early on the morning of 2 July, Lee met with Longstreet and Hill, and two of Longstreet's divisional commanders Hood and McClaws. Lee ordered that Longstreet should attack the ridges opposite. When his attack was in motion, Hill would attack and Ewell would attack Culp's Hill. Longstreet objected. He wanted to move south and outflank the Union army, but Lee was adamant. Hood and Longstreet then suggested that they should take the Big Round Top and Little Round Top hills on the extreme south of the Union line. Lee, now annoyed, ordered Hood to move into the valley through the Devil's Den, an uneven, rocky jumble interspersed by clusters of trees.
The Confederates were in position by 1500, suggesting that Longstreet was not enthusiastic about the plan. When they arrived opposite the Peach Orchard, they were surprised to see Sickles' Union forces in front of them. Hood and Longstreet again spoke to Lee and suggested taking the Round Tops so that artillery placed there could enfilade the whole Union line. Lee would not change his mind.
So Hood's first two brigades moved against Sickles' left flank and his right-hand brigade took Big Round Top Hill, which was not defended. The other brigades suffered heavy losses in the Devil's Den. Gen. Warren, chief engineer of the Federal Army, was at the foot of Little Round Top and saw Law's men on Big Round Top and ordered a brigade under Col. Vincent to defend Little Round Top. The 20th Maine were sent up the hill and ordered to defend it. They had barely reached the top when Confederates charged across from Big Round Top. They were held by the 20th Maine but they ran out of ammunition. Fixing bayonets, they charged and surprised the Confederates, taking many prisoners. The rest of Vincent's brigade now came up and settled down to defend the hill. The rest of Hood's brigades were pushing the Yankees back from the Devil's Den but Hood was injured there, dying a while later.
Longstreet then launched McLaws' division and they drove back Sickles Corps in savage fighting from the Peach Orchard. Sickles lost a leg (which is on display in the Smithsonian Institute today). Hancock saved the day by sending in reinforcements. Hill was also supposed to attack after Longstreet, followed by Ewell's Corps which would attack Culp Hill. But Hill did not attack as it was now quite late and Ewell's attack petered out when he saw that Hill was not moving. The Yankees had time to reinforce Cemetery Hill and Culp Hill. Had Hill attacked Cemetery Hill, they could have carried the day as this part of the Federal line was not occupied. Gen Lee's lack of control over his generals resulted in his failure to press home his advantage on the 2nd day of the battle.
Stuart now appeared at Lee's Headquarters, having failed to keep his chief informed of Federal movements. He was ordered to take up a position on Ewell's left flank where he could cut off any retreating Yankees if these were driven off Cemetery Ridge.
The Federals had survived a day of crisis and Meade now sought his commanders' opinion as to what the army should do on the next day. Lee set goals and left his generals do what they thought was necessary. The Federal generals decided to stay and fight. Meade thought that Lee would attack the centre of the Union line. That is exactly what Lee decided to do - cut the Union army in two and destroy it. Longstreet again objected to this plan and wanted to attack the Federal left, as the centre would have been reinforced by Meade. Lee was getting annoyed by Longstreet's objections and ordered him to lead the assault the next day, using Pickett's division (the only fresh division left) and two from Hill's corps. Longstreet suggested that Hill should command as most of the troops were from his corps, but Lee refused this. The attack would be preceded by an artillery bombardment of Cemetery Ridge with 170 guns. Lee had worked miracles with his army before - why not now?
Longstreet now gave his orders to generals Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble who would lead the three columns. He pointed out a clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge - this was the objective but the largest part of the federal army was now dug in there. Pickett would move on the right-hand side and turn 45 degrees to the left when he reached the Emmitsburg road. Trimble and Pettigrew would advance straight across the 1,700 yard/1,5km wide open area to Cemetery Ridge. All of the Confederates would be in range of the federal artillery and many thousands of rifles, a daunting prospect indeed. Colonel Alexander, the Confederate artillery commander, was preparing his 170 guns in front of Seminary Ridge. These would fire at the centre of Cemetery Ridge, to silence the Federal guns there and ease the task of the infantry. It was hot. The temperature would rise to 35 degrees Celsius.
Lee joined Longstreet and Pickett to encourage the troops. Meade joined Hancock at the copse of trees and stone wall which was the Union line, the position known as "The Angle". Here were stationed some 5,700 men and 35 guns. The Union line stretched from Cemetery Ridge just above the town some 2 miles/3,2km south to Little Round Top, covered by 127 guns. At 1300 Lee's guns opened fire, followed by the Union guns 15 minutes later. Both armies' guns were overshooting. At 1500 Alexander noticed that some Union guns were being pulled back. Thinking they were withdrawing, he advised Longstreet who gave the order to advance. The Union guns, however, were being replaced and not retreating.
Pickett ordered his men to advance. Some 12,000 Confederates moved out, with battle flags waving and bayonets fixed, in dressed lines and parade ground precision. They had been ordered to hold their fire until they were in rifle range, about a mile/1,6km away. The Union artillery opened fire, their balls ripping through the advancing lines. The extreme left of the Confederates was heavily shelled and some Confederate brigades did not advance, two retreating back to Seminary Ridge. The Union gunners were using canister shot and whole rows of men were being cut down. But the Confederates closed ranks and marched on.
Pickett had lost half of his men but reached the Emmitsburg Road and turned 45 degrees left heading for the Angle. The Confederates were now under rifle fire as well and they were being decimated. They reached the Angle and fierce hand to hand fighting started, but the Confederates had had enough and they started to retreat back to Seminary Ridge, leaving heaps of dead and wounded of both sides lying round the Angle. The attack had failed. About half of the 12,000 attackers were dead or wounded. Lee said "it is all my fault". Pickett was ordered to take his division into reserve and said 'I have no division". In some 30 minutes the Confederates had lost 5,675 men and the Union 1,500.
Lee expected a counter-attack but this did not happen. Meade thought that his men had done enough. They too were spent. A few minor cavalry skirmishes took place but night fell, giving respite from the heat.
The greatest battle ever fought on American soil had ended. All that Lee could do was to retreat back south. He had lost too many men, his supplies and ammunition were not sufficient to stay in the north. Gen Imboden was sent off with 10,000 wounded and 7,000 more were left for the Union doctors to treat. The rest of the Army of Northern Virginia returned south by another route. The wounded suffered greatly on their via dolorosa, their suffering made worse by the jolting transport, exacerbated by the state of the roads and the muddy conditions due to the rain which started on 4 July.
The Potomac was in flood and the Union troops had destroyed the bridge at Wiliamsport. Lee ordered a defensive line dug while the bridge was rebuilt. On 14 July Meade started his follow-up but Lee had crossed into Virginia. Meade had fought the Confederate's best and had saved the Union. Mistakes had been made by both sides but those made by Lee and his generals had lost them the battle and, ultimately, the war.
On 19 November Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address, ending with: "...that these shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom and that the government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth". His words would echo through history and the United States remained undivided.
The chairman congratulated Mr Lambrick on his excellent presentation and thanked him for another fascinating talk on, and insight into, the American Civil War, before presenting him with the customary gift.
We welcome new member Mr Marcel Raupp who joined us recently and hope to see him at coming talks.
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13 JUNE 2013: BATTLE OF BLAAUWBERG 1806 by Ian van Oordt
The Battle of Blaauwberg is probably one of the most important battles fought in South Africa, yet so few know about it. Some can describe how the battle was fought but do not know exactly where it was fought. Analysing the known existing maps plus a new one found in the archives of England, studying written text as well as cannon performance and finally walking the battlefield by foot, have advanced new theories on where and how the battle was fought. An illustrated talk presenting the new theories on the battle, battle lines and artillery positions.
11 JULY 2013: THE BATTLE OF KURSK, JULY 1943 AND THE 'DEATH RIDE OF THE PANZERS' AT PROKHOROVKA - FACT OR MYTH? by Johan van den Berg
There is a saying which purports that "the first casualty of war is truth". Of all the wars of the 20th Century, World War Two reigns supreme over the 300-odd conflicts of the period, where the historical truth in many instances are being manipulated, propagandised, obfuscated or simply misinterpreted as a matter of policy or political expediency, disinformation, personal bias or simply ignorance. Operation "Citadel" (Battle of Kursk, July 5th-17th, 1943) is entrenched in history as being the "greatest tank battle in history" and that literally thousands of tanks participated in the pivotal battle at Prokhorovka between the 12-14th of July, 1943. But was that really the case? Our speaker is of the opinion that the accepted "official" historical view is seriously flawed for these very reasons and will challenge it on the basis of the findings of a number of in-depth studies undertaken by Russian, German, English and American historical researchers and authors in the recent past.
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