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At 6:30 a.m. on July 1st, Union Cavalry General John Buford lowered his binoculars and scribbled a hurried message to awaiting curriers, “Delaying Confederate main body in Gettysburg. Come at once with all possible speed.” After a brief tangle with A.P. Hill’s foraging parties the previous afternoon, his boys awoke to a slugfest with Confederate infantry brigades. And so, the games began.

 We’ll come back to Buford and Day 1 a little later. In the interim, I’m going to spin this yarn a bit from Lee’s perspective to highlight a couple of reasons why the handling of this battle was so uncharacteristic of him. You recall that General Lee’s won/loss record prior to this battle and even the subsequent battles was rather impeccable. He became ‘audacity personified’ and had a sort of cowering effect on the Union psyche. In short, Lee’s failed decisions at Gettysburg were fueled by poor knowledge of the enemy’s disposition and a colossal logistics nightmare. Of course, in the words of General Pickett after the war, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it too.” True-dat. They did, indeed.

Overview: When your team goes on the road, you’re constantly contending with a hostile environment, and it’s always “Operation Dining Out.”  In the final assessment, Lee’s team simply couldn’t win on the road.

Managing the movement of 75,000 men with 33 different wagon trains in enemy territory is no small feat. For visual aid, these wagon supply trains were each several miles long and cumbersome. Getting food to the men and their horses is the trick – especially while on the move. Unlike Virginia, the Pennsylvanian countryside was not friendly. Local militias impeded Lee’s foraging efforts by shutting off mountain passes with partisan attacks against his quartermaster teams.

His cavalry’s earlier blocking operations in Virginia had given the Confederates a nice head-start, but that was the last bit of enemy Intel General Lee would receive until game day. Lee’s attention was focused northward, assuming that General Stuart was between him and the Union army.

With that assumption in mind, Lee tasked his remaining cavalry detachments with wagon train protection rather than reconnaissance. Food is petrol for both man and beast. Somehow, the Union army managed to get between Stuart and his boss, and they closed fast. Clarification: No enemy intel is detrimental. This crucial variable and the ensuing chain reactions it caused totally took General Lee out of his game. Instead of assembling his forces and setting the conditions – he was in react mode and ended up with a poor hand to play.

A few days earlier, Lee’s lengthy deceptive intrigue was revealed when his legions entered Southern Pennsylvania. Local telegraph messages flowed to Harrisburg detailing the composition and locations of the Southern forces. Those transmissions were soon read by decision-makers in the war department and relayed to General Meade’s forces, now racing in pursuit of the Confederates. Confederate leadership had no warning of the approaching Northern horde. They would soon get an education.

The logistical worries surrounding the Confederate’s extensive trains severely inhibited Lee’s situational awareness. Things were much simpler when playing defense behind the Rappahannock River. To be clear, supplies and logistics were the center of gravity for the Confederates and dominated almost all of Lee’s battlefield calculus during the three-day clash in Gettysburg.

Storm clouds cometh

To set the scene in Pennsylvania, General Ewell’s forward divisions were tasked with procuring provisions for the follow-on forces of Longstreet and A.P. Hill. By the time Ewell’s 20,000 men had moved through an area, there was nothing left for the others. Foraging opportunities dictated their route and tempo. General Lee wrote to Lt. General Ewell, “It will depend upon the quantity of supplies obtained in southern Pennsylvania whether the rest of the army can follow.” Lt. General Longstreet recorded receiving 3,000 head of cattle and 5,000 barrels of flour from Ewell to feed his soldiers after crossing the Potomac. You can just imagine that the local farmers and merchants were overjoyed with the Confederate currency they received as payment. I jest.

To sustain provisions such as these, the army had to keep moving to new bountiful areas as they quickly depleted local resources. Lee did not have the luxury to stop and bang it out with the Federals for a prolonged period, or he’d consume all the local supplies. Those concerns would later affect Lee’s decision to attack over ground favorable to General Meade.

 

 

Day 1 Gettysburg: With that backdrop, let’s rejoin the series of events starting on Day One with Union General Buford on defense.

On 1 July, Confederate forces were spread out from Maryland to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, when Major General Heth’s Confederates crashed into General Buford’s cavalry. This was Lee’s first real confirmation that the Union Army was indeed nearby.

Despite Lee’s standing order not to get drawn into a general engagement, Major General Heth’s skirmish quickly morphed into a large-scale conflict. Any battle that results from an unplanned meeting engagement between two armies is almost impossible to manage. Both sides rushed forces to the fray.

General Ewell’s Confederate forces north of Gettysburg wheeled around and came in behind the Union lines pushing the Federal brigades to the high ground south of town. The rapid convergence of troops towards one location invariably caused traffic nightmares amongst the many wagon trains – all several miles long. A good portion of Lee’s army was impeded by their extensive reserve train and became bottlenecked on the Chambersburg-Gettysburg turnpike southwest of Gettysburg.

Note: Due to the barren farmlands in Virginia, Lee was forced to build a reserve supply train to ensure provisions for future campaigns back in Virginia. By the end of Day 3, it was over 20 miles long and had become an enormous logistical impediment.

One of Longstreet’s Confederate divisions (General McLaws) was twenty-eight miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began and was stopped dead in its tracks when it got behind one of General Ewell’s 10-mile wagon trains. McLaws didn’t arrive until late the following day. (Gettysburg wagon train 1863 Picture from www.theatlantic.com)

The impromptu battle caused congestion that hindered everyone’s movement. This greatly affected the number of men both sides could bring to bear. Union General Hancock’s ‘Command Order’ to move all Federal wagon trains off the roads greatly increased the number of Union troops that joined the fight. That command decision likely diverted a Union disaster. By late afternoon, the Confederates had brought into action at least 23,000 infantry and managed to win the day. However, because of poor reconnaissance, Lee was not aware of his numerical advantage and subsequently did not continue the momentum.

As the sun set on the first day, Lt. General Longstreet argued to disengage and maneuver to the southeast to get in between the Union Army and Washington. In this course of action, the Confederate army could choose suitable ground and continue their streak of tactical victories. General Lee rejected this option. He understood the army could not execute the maneuver because his logistics footprint had become too big to facilitate an operational turning movement. General Lee articulated this in his after-action report: “It had not been intended to deliver a general battle so far from our base unless attacked, but coming unexpectedly upon the whole Federal Army, to withdraw through the mountains with our extensive trains would have been difficult and dangerous.”

While the Confederate lanterns burned late, Union General Meade and staff rode throughout the night towards Gettysburg.

 

 

Colonel Sharpe of the Bureau of Military Intelligence informed Meade that captured Confederate documents from Richmond indicated Jefferson Davis was not going to send Lee any reinforcements. That intel, combined with an advantageous defensive position, underscored General Meade’s decision to “Stay and fight it out,” which is the title of this print by Don Stivers seen here at Lt. Colonel JP Morgan’s home in Virginia. “It was good ground” to make a stand until more of his forces arrived. Meade would construct his defenses while simultaneously blocking Lee from threatening Baltimore and Washington.  As the calendar changed to July 2nd, the campfires around town multiplied. However, like the Confederates, many of the Union brigades were still strung out along the route of the march and would arrive worn out just in time to join the fight the following day.

Day 2 at Gettysburg: Mars, the God of War, was in rare form on this day.

Early morning observations confirmed Meade’s defensive posture. As alluded to earlier, Lee’s provisions were finite. He could not sit idly by long, or he’d consume his food supplies. Meade’s forces also grew stronger by the hour. Lee decided to attack both Union flanks before the Federals could assemble all 7 Corps. General Ewell attacked the Union on the left, and Longstreet attacked on the right. After marching for miles, Confederate Generals Hood and McLaws arrived at 4:30 p.m. just in time to launch their attacks.

“Louisiana Tigers attack East Cemetery Hill, Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, artist’s impression, detail,” House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/40880.

 

To put it mildly, some of the most heroic and gallant fighting of the war occurred during the afternoon of Day 2 in Gettysburg. For the next 160 years, countless books, paintings, movies, and battlefield tours would beguile generations with awe-inspiring stories of the many actions of July 2nd, 1863. General Longstreet’s Corps attacked the Union’s left flank across iconic places such as the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the Valley of Death.

Gettysburg Re-enactment 2013

 

Confederate General Barksdale was mortally wounded while leading what is renowned as the grandest charge ever seen. The Union 3rd Corps was virtually destroyed, and its Commander, Major General Dan Sickles, had his leg shattered by a cannonball. He was carried off the battlefield in fashion, smoking a cigar. (Picture taken at Gettysburg Re-enactment 2013)

Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s fabled bayonet charge on Little Round Top saved the Union flank and propelled him into prominence after the war. The list of heroics is far too numerous for this little article but suffice it to say, there were many. At 10:30 that evening, darkness finally halted the melee.

Both sides were severely beaten up. General Meade’s note to Washington indicated it was the fiercest fighting of the war. The Union had lost around 9000 soldiers, and the Confederates sustained about 6800 casualties. When the smoke cleared, both sides remained across from each other.

The Curtain Call (Day 3 at Gettysburg)

On the third day of battle, fighting resumed with Ewell attacking Lee’s left while cavalry battles raged to the east and south. But the main event occurred in the middle of the field. Lee began the day’s finale with an incredible 150-gun cannonade to weaken the Federal center. This bombardment was the largest of the war. When Longstreet’s artillery chief ran low on long-range ordinance, he signaled the general to kick off the attack. When the cannonade stopped, over 12,000 Confederates stepped forward from the tree line and moved forward in a dramatic assault across three-quarters of a mile toward the Union lines.

(1863 Harper’s Weekly newspaper.  The leaf presents an eye-witness sketch of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The illustration is captioned, “The Battle of Gettysburg – Longstreet’s Attack on our Left Center – Blue Ridge in the Distance – From a Drawing by Mr. A. R. Waud)

General Meade’s artillery chief had held his fire during the Confederate cannonade to deceive the Confederates into believing the Northern cannons had been knocked out of action. The approaching Confederates walked into a killing box of flanking artillery fire from the heights combined with musket and canister shots from their front. This triangulation of fire had devastating results.  

Unless you’ve walked across the terrain of ‘Picket’s Charge,’ you don’t have a feel for how uphill and ominous the terrain really is. The advancing troops were terrified as swaths of their fellow soldiers disintegrated all around them. The remaining attackers crashed into the defenders, and for a moment, the Union line wavered, but reserves rushed to the breach, and the Confederate attack dissolved.

Nearly one-half of the Confederate attackers did not return to their lines. General Pickett’s division lost about two-thirds of its men, with all three of his brigade commanders killed or wounded. Lee’s offensive punch was gone, but with around 45,000 men remaining, his army was still lethal, and General Meade recognized that. Later that evening, General Lee tasked General Imboden’s cavalry detachment to begin the movement of his 25-mile reserve supply trains and wounded on a westward circuit towards Virginia.

The following day, the Confederates manned defensive positions hoping that Meade would attack. General Meade, having been in command a week, did not wish to sully his good fortunes by repeating the Confederate mistakes of the previous day. Both sides cared for their wounded and kept tabs on the other. That evening, Lee left the campfires glowing and slipped away in the night. The Confederates then embarked upon one of the most grueling retreats in the history of warfare. Ironically, it was Independence Day in the United States.

Epilogue: Prior to 1 July 1863, there were 2,400 citizens in Gettysburg. It was a sleepy little town. On July 1st, two competing armies with a hurricane force of 160,000 belligerents swarmed into the area for a 3-day donnybrook, leaving in their wake over 50,000 casualties and 8,900 confirmed dead. Both armies vanished from the scene, leaving more dead people than residents. Pieces of people and debris were everywhere, and thousands of dead horses carpeted the community. Gettysburg was a wreck. The hurricane force was last seen heading south.





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