Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of Hunt - "MEADE AND LEE AFTER GETTYSBURG: The Forgotten Final Stage of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Falling Waters to Culpeper Court House, July 14-31, 1863"

[Meade and Lee After Gettysburg: The Forgotten Final Stage of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Falling Waters to Culpeper Court House, July 14-31, 1863 by Jeffrey William Hunt (Savas Beatie, 2017). Hardcover, 16 maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:291/312. ISBN:978-1-61121-343-0. $29.95]

Over the past decade or so, there's been a bit of a renaissance in the appreciation of George Gordon Meade. He is no longer considered merely the beneficiary of good defensive ground and Lee's blunders at Gettysburg, nor is he generally dismissed as an overcautious army commander who would never have defeated the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864-65 without U.S. Grant's overall direction of the Army of the Potomac.

Even so, most still view him as a flawed commander and doubts remain whether the Pennsylvanian was up to the task of finishing the war in the East. Clearly, the only way to truly assess Meade's performance in the role of independent army commander is to engage in a close analysis of his command tenure during the last six months of 1863, the period between Gettysburg and the arrival of General Grant in the East. This is one of the major goals of Jeffrey Hunt's planned trilogy, the first volume of which is Meade and Lee After Gettysburg: The Forgotten Final Stage of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Falling Waters to Culpeper Court House, July 14-31, 1863.

Many readers will recall the two fine Gettysburg retreat studies by Kent Masterson Brown and the team of Eric Wittenberg, Mike Nugent, and J.D. Petruzzi, and Hunt's book understandably does not find the need to tread the same ground. Instead, Meade and Lee After Gettysburg begins after Robert E. Lee's battered army crossed the Potomac River back to apparent safety in Virginia. It traces the continuous action that occurred over a two week period beginning on July 14, 1863 and ending on July 31 with the Confederate reoccupation of the Rappahannock River defense line.

The book provides readers with a very satisfying blow-by-blow account of the final stages of the Gettysburg Campaign, appropriately characterized as a 'cat-and-mouse game' played across the lower reaches of the Shenandoah and Loudoun valleys and within the Blue Ridge Mountain passes connecting them. Hunt does a very fine job of describing the operational decision-making of Lee and Meade as well as the flow of events that resulted from those decisions. At regular intervals in the book, the author pauses to take stock of the military situation as the opposing army commanders understood it at the time, assessing the relative positions of the major elements of each army and exploring both the quality of the intelligence available to Lee and Meade and how they reacted to what they thought they knew.

Hunt's incisive military narrative also extends down to the tactical level, where detailed accounts of the engagements at Shepherdstown (July 16), Manassas Gap (July 21), Chester Gap (July 22), Wapping Heights (July 23), and Newby's Crossroads (July 24) are presented. At Shepherdstown, a Union cavalry division successfully escaped a Confederate trap. Later, other blue troopers were able to seize advantageous positions inside the Manassas and Chester gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, Meade pushed his infantry forward cautiously, and the timidly fought Battle of Wapping Heights inside Manassas Gap was a stalemate, with the Excelsior Brigade's assault providing most of the drama. The clash at Newby's Crossroads (on the road to Culpeper Court House) between George Armstrong Custer's cavalry brigade and A.P. Hill's passing Confederate infantry represented a final (and rather foolhardy) Union effort at disrupting the retreat of Lee's army toward Culpeper. A multitude of smaller skirmishes are also covered in the book.

Maps are fairly numerous, and the best ones are at the operational scale. In these, the author carefully pinpoints all the major pieces on the chessboard of war. Tactical maps are functional, if rather spartan. The photographs included in the study are helpful visual aids, especially the series of mid-twentieth century images of the topography inside Manassas Gap.

Lee's escape across the Potomac is typically viewed as the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, and a major goal of Hunt's study is to convince readers that many more associated moments of military importance occurred after that artificial stopping point. Hunt builds a powerful argument for regarding July 31 as the true concluding date of the Gettysburg Campaign. In the end, Meade and Lee After Gettysburg offers ample demonstration that the events that occurred over the last half of July were in clear continuity with those that came before them. It also suggests the possibility of a more decisive conclusion to the campaign.

It would be difficult to argue against the author's contention that Lee consistently outgeneraled Meade during the last half of July. Whereas Lee saw the military situation clearly and acted decisively,  Meade was cautious and indecisive, continually misreading intelligence and reacting too slowly to fleeting opportunities. Hunt recognizes the fact that Meade was still new to army command and was justly concerned about his logistical position south of the Potomac, but it will be interesting to see if his largely negative assessment of Meade's capacity for army command evolves during his later volume discussions of Bristoe Station and Mine Run (though the author suggests already that he sees Meade's high command shortcomings as innate qualities).

The author does credit Meade with considerable strategic insight when the general used the Loudoun Valley as his base of operations for engaging Lee's army south of the Potomac. With the Blue Ridge passes in Union hands and his army's flank and rear reasonably secured, Meade would enjoy an advantageous position astride Lee's direct line of communication with Richmond.

Hunt marks July 21 as the moment of truth for Meade, and a signal failure of the test of command. A week into the operation, and with the Army of the Potomac well established in the Loudoun Valley, Meade received an intelligence report that fairly accurately mapped out the positions of Lee's army in the Shenandoah. The Union mounted arm had done its job well, and would continue to do so. Instead of acting on this report, Meade decided to rest his infantry on July 21. In the author's view this was a decision of unjustifiable timidity on Meade's part. The fact that it took Meade a full day and a half to set his infantry in motion toward engaging the enemy at Manassas Gap reinforces this view. On the other hand, the author perhaps too strongly condemns Meade for not immediately thrusting his army into the Shenandoah Valley below Lee's army. Hunt admits that the Army of the Potomac would have placed its own communications at considerable peril, but ignores the effect the raging Shenandoah River (which, as shown in the book, had already greatly hampered Confederate efforts to respond to the enemy presence in and around the Blue Ridge gaps) might have had on the general movement of the army into the Shenandoah Valley.

Meade's other option would have been to continue up the Loudoun Valley and hit Lee's army when it was in motion and strung out on the roads leading to Culpeper and the line of the Rappahannock. This was a safer offensive choice that still offered the possibility of achieving big results, but it seems not to have been considered by Meade, who mistakenly believed the bulk of the rebel army to still be in the Shenandoah Valley. By the time Meade felt confident enough to move his infantry forward into Manassas Gap in force (the result being the lengthy but timidly conducted fight at Wapping Heights on July 23), two-thirds of Lee's army was already through the Blue Ridge Mountains via Chester Gap and beyond easy reach. In the author's view, these are the kinds of limitations in strategic vision and initiative that would come to characterize Meade's performances as army commander.

For the Gettysburg literature, publisher Savas Beatie has for some time now performed excellent double duty in improving upon aging standard works and providing fresh perspectives on understudied or underappreciated aspects of the campaign. Meade and Lee After Gettysburg is an excellent example of the latter. In it, the true meaning of the events of the last half of July 1863 in northern Virginia are explored in detail for the first time and their importance (potential or otherwise) convincingly presented. The volume is highly recommended and certainly whets one's appetite for the final two books in the trilogy.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write a review of my book. I am glad you enjoyed it! The story is a fascinating one and I think readers will find the continuation of the saga equally interesting.

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    1. I hope you'll consider a return to the Trans-Mississippi in the future, too!

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  2. Thank you for this deep and insightful review, Drew. This is a remarkable book and we are all glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Reading it was a great experience. It was basically all new information to me.

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  3. John FoskettJuly 20, 2017

    This looks like a mandatory "buy". Regarding vol. 2, I'd be interested in Jeff's/Ted's take on "why" in light of Tighe's book.

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    1. John, I hope you enjoy the book when you get the chance to pick up a copy. In regards to volume 2 it is the middle section of my examination of the entire period from July 14 to Dec.31, 1863. Mr. Tighe barely touches on Aug., deals with September briefly and concentrates on Oct. My volume 2 deals with each of those months in detail and spends a lot of time looking at how the armies recovered from Gettysburg, the operational and strategic dilemmas each faced, how they coped with the same problems of manpower, desertion, morale, supply and events in Georgia and Tennessee. The chess match between Lee and Meade is examined in depth and over the course of the three volumes we will get a good look at Meade as an independent commander -- although he would certainly tell you he was not as independent as he wanted to be given Lincoln and Halleck oversight. The 5 1/2 months between the end of Gettysburg and the onset winter quarters has never been treated as a whole, nor studied in any serious way. I hope my trilogy will help fill the gap between all the great Gettysburg literature and Rhea's outstanding series on the Overland Campaign as well as stimulate greater interest and study of this fascinating, dramatic and very active period in the VA. theater. Certainly I hope it does justice to the men and women who fought and lived through those campaigns and the thousands who were killed, wounded or captured during those operations.

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  4. Derek WeeseJuly 21, 2017

    Definitely looking forward to these, been fascinated by Meade for some time.

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    1. I think you will enjoy them a great deal then!

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  5. Thank you for the review of "Meade and Lee After Gettysburg." We appreciate the review and are glad to hear that you enjoyed the book. Those interested in checking out more about the book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here: http://tinyurl.com/kqt3269

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